Expectation: Coming five years after Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the third album from indie folk star Justin Vernon marks a huge departure from the sound that made him famous.
I don’t care, I’m spelling these how I would attempt to say them.
- 22 (Over Soon) – A slow building song centered around a quivering vocal loop that plays continuously throughout the track. Vernon sings only in harmonies as pitch shifted vocals populate the empty spaces and additional vocal loops enter and exit sporadically, forming constantly changing chords with the central loop. Electric guitars and a string section guide the song gently upward until the soulful clarity of the sax solo. Finally, the song climaxes in an enormous vocal harmony before everything abruptly falls away, leaving only the quivering, altered voice to remind the listener “It might be over soon.” I’m not going to break every song down like this but… wow. Just a brilliant opening track to let fans know this album will be unlike anything they may have expected.
- 10 Deathbreast – As much as the opening track begs for Kid A comparisons, the second track evokes even stronger reminders of In Rainbows through its bassy, heavily compressed percussion. The entire song is essentially 2 crescendos with a break in the middle, but the myriad of disparate elements interwoven into such a cohesive sound make it seem like much more.
- 715 Creeks – The new counterargument for anyone who still thinks that autotune is “cheating”. As an ordinary ballad, this would have been lovely, but the warbling autotune and vocoder effects demand the listeners attention, drawing attention to the level of sheer passion in Vernon’s voice that is able to penetrate the dense layers of effects.
- 33 God – The ideas the opening track placed onto the skeleton of a rock song. Interwoven vocal layers and samples with ethereal synths over a dictatorial drum beat that ushers the song from one section to the next.
- 29 Strafford Apartments – Perhaps the folksiest track on the album, with symphonic elements relegated to a supporting role. Initially, the vocals use the same harmonies as the previous songs, then vocoder layers are added on as the song builds in intensity until it all falls away and Vernon sings some of his only single-track vocals on the entire album. The bridge is especially gorgeous.
- 666 t – It would take several paragraphs to provide an overview of what’s going on in this song, so I’ll just say that it is very complex and very good. This is how you make an effective crescendo.
- 21 Moon Water – In my opinion, the only true failure of this album is this track’s outro; I’ve never been a fan of glitch sounds or intentional sour notes to begin with, and the two together just aren’t worth what little payoff there is at the end.
- 8 Circle – Am I the only one that hears an 80’s influence here? The slow, echoing drum beat, the dramatic vocals… I just can’t unhear it. Pretty good track though.
- 45 – A really nice song that slowly transitions from the experimentation that dominates the album back to a folksier sound, giving the ending a feeling of stark honesty.
- Million – Arguably bearing the most resemblance to Bon Iver’s previous sound, but a beautiful song that perfectly concludes a beautiful album.
Overall: First thing’s first: this album is weird. It feels intentional too; I suspect several moments on this album are weird for the sake of being weird. Furthermore, the mixing could definitely be better and Vernon drastically overuses his favorite harmonies, as always. Many songs end abruptly or suddenly change dynamics dramatically mid song, and the lyrics are cryptic to the point that I suspect they were written to evoke a mood more than convey a specific message. Despite all of this, 22, a Million is fantastic. Perhaps the ingenuity and inventiveness are more contrived than inspired, but Bon Iver at least had the courage to contrive something this bizarre and then record it, which is more than you can say for the vast majority of artists. Even better, a lot of it works. The clashing elements occasionally unite into a brilliant cacophony of sound, providing a glimpse of music that feels genuinely new. Vernon tosses aside common standards for “good” singing and demands that you listen to his imperfect, mutated, and captivating performance.
22, a Million is not “the new Kid A“. No album will ever be Kid A, because Kid A only is what it is because it hadn’t been done before. Bon Iver make one hell of an attempt though.