“22, A Million”: Bon Iver’s Exploration of The Future And Past

(Photo by Cameron Wittig & Crystal Quinn)

(Photo by Cameron Wittig & Crystal Quinn)

Understandably, a lot of attention is given to the portion of an artist’s career that puts them on the map. How much has been written about Bon Iver’s initial splash in the indie music world with For Emma, Forever Ago? I’ve written about it myself, more than once. A sudden meteoric rise is fascinating, but my favorite portion of a musician’s career is when they’ve conquered their niche and have nothing left to do but sort of go crazy.

In 2010, Kanye West reached the mountaintop with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He followed it up with the only possible sequel, 2013’s existential fever dream called Yeezus. In 2011, Bon Iver released the eponymous Bon Iver, Bon Iver, an ambitious effort that proved he was more than a one-hit wonder. It cemented him in the indie world and earned him a Grammy. Both of these artists seemingly reached their destinations. Kanye’s territory was pop music and the American zeitgeist itself, and Bon Iver’s territory just happened to be critically-acclaimed indie music. Both realms are equally important and equally dominated by these two.

When Justin Vernon announced a kind of indefinite hiatus from Bon Iver in 2012, it made some sense. Had it been the end of the band, it would’ve been terrible. But, like if Springsteen retired after Born To Run, it would’ve at least been understandable. At least from my perspective, it was easy to accept that Vernon could’ve felt he’d done what he needed to do with the project. He had other creative endeavors, and maybe walking away from his most popular outlet is what he needed.

Thankfully, that wasn’t what ended up happening. Vernon is back, and he brought his very own Yeezus with him.

For Emma was quiet and intimate. Bon Iver was lush and sprawling. 22, A Million feels like Bon Iver bursting at the seams.

Like Yeezus, it’s as if Vernon deconstructed Bon Iver to its basic parts before drilling it all back together like some sloppy, gorgeous Frankenstein monster. All the familiar parts are here, but they’ve been bolted on top of each other and twisted up in knots.

The project is fantastic in that it broaches new territory while also circling back through sounds that Vernon has mastered throughout his musical career. Vernon’s various creative outlets have always existed in their own space, with only a bit of overlap. Never before has a Bon Iver album been able to encapsulate all that Vernon can do.

“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” feels like a Bon Iver, Bon Iver song. “715 — CRΣΣKS” feels like a Blood Bank EP song. “29 #Strafford APTS” feels like a For Emma, Forever Ago song. “8 (circle)” feels like a Volcano Choir song. “00000 Million” feels like a cut from Vernon’s DeYarmond Edison days. It’s Justin Vernon’s greatest hits with a 2016 spin.

It’s not long, running just over 34 minutes, but Vernon manages to cram all kinds of head-spinning twists into its 10 tracks. Vocal samples loop and stutter and smash into each other. Backdrops crackle in and out behind silky vocals. Crunchy percussion meets lofty choruses. Despair is conveyed with heavily auto-tuned acapella vocals. Minimalist piano keys give way to maximalist instrumentation. Songs float softly through, as if they were ripped from old cassette tapes that have been slowly distorted by time. The album closes with a song that breaks through the haze. Stylistically, it’s the project’s clearest track, and it brings clarity to the rest of this chunk of music.

As a huge Bon Iver fan, I’ll allow myself more time to get to know the album before placing it anywhere in my Imaginary Music Hall of Fame, but I think 22, A Million has a chance to leave its mark. A guy that’s made his career on continuing to push outwards is practically galloping outside the boundaries at this point, and it’s fascinating to listen to. You can’t help but get the feeling things are only going to get weirder, which brings me to what may be the most exciting part of the album: The future of Bon Iver, if it continues, is going to be incredibly interesting.

Lyrics have always existed in Bon Iver projects in a place that’s more like an instrument. They prop up the track and add meaning without conveying an overt message. They’re like poetry in music form. 22, A Million closes with this:

I’ve been to that grove

Where no matter the source is

And I walked it off: how long I’d last

Sore-ring to cope, whole band on the canyon

When the days have no numbers

Well it harms it harms me it harms, I’ll let it in

12 years after the debut of DeYarmond Edison, Vernon is better than ever at telling his side of the story without really telling much at all. He’s the master of conveying emotion, and this project sees him using more sounds than ever to achieve that goal. 22, A Million is an incredibly dense and engaging listen. Grab a nice pair of headphones and slip into Justin Vernon’s playground. You’ll get lost quickly.