An album adorned with cryptic messages both in its songs as well as its artwork, 22, A Million does little to shake off Justin Vernon’s title as being one “of the greatest living artists”. Toning down the acoustic guitar and instrumentals for a greater focus on lo-fi and electro elements leaves us with a career defining record that asks as many questions as its creator is willing to answer.
By Liam Menzies (@blinkclyro)
While their hiatus and wait for an upcoming album long surpassed that of many other artists who seemingly disappeared for no reason, Bon Iver’s absence never quite reached the notoriety that someone like Frank Ocean did. Perhaps it’s due to Justin Vernon, frontman of the indie folk outfit and named “one of the baddest white boys on the planet” by Kanye West, seeming to work his way into various projects in the meanwhile, most notably the aforementioned Yeezy as well as fellow sombre songwriter James Blake. Having stepped away from the band back in 2012, “I really feel the need to walk away from it while I still care about it” he stated in an interview with The Local Show, it seemed like Vernon’s hardworking approach was very much juxtaposing his usual work method: after all, the independent debut record For Emma, Forever Ago was very much the by-product of seclusion, isolation and heartbreak.
For 22, A Million however, Bon Iver’s third studio album, Vernon battled similar demons in attempts to create a record that was the victim of a writer’s struggles: “It was a long moment, these last few years, thinking: What am I doing? What do I want to do it for?” he said in an interview with the NY Times. Having battled depression during the production of 22, A Million, Vernon had repeatedly stated in interviews his struggles with new found fame and the anxiety surrounding him, choosing to have his face taken out of all press shots as they left him “very exposed, with scarred skin from the whole experience. Not that it was all bad, but it wore down these outer layers, and everything kind of hurt.”
All of these murmurings do little to shake of Vernon’s image as being a Les Mis tee and Timberwolves wearing seconding coming of Cobain but whilst the Nirvana frontman was never one for subtly, tracks like Rape Me detailing his woes pretty much threw any traces of that out the window, Vernon takes 22, A Million as an opportunity to go down a more cryptic path. The song titles alone all read as part hieroglyphics part riddles that, whilst ungodly to try and mention in a conversation, better yet a review, seem to fit the nature of the album perfectly. Taking this approach could seem harmful as, after all, making your songs untranslatable messes means you threaten to scare off both casual and life long fans of your work. Thankfully, Vernon and his Bon Iver posse do enough to wear some of the more obvious themes on their sleeves while hiding enough to make repeated listens feel just as, if not more enjoyable than the original.
While the aforementioned debut For Emma explored issues that were deeply personal to Vernon, having suffered both the break up of a band as well as his relationship, 22, A Million takes a step in more of an existential direction and as soon as the album opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” it’s made abundantly clear that it’s the case. Sampling the Gospel hymn How I Got Over, Vernon sings “where you gonna look for combination” into an OP-1 synthesiser, sampler and sequencer, touching on questions of soul-searching and insecurity, the former of which Vernon planned on addressing on a trip to Santorini: how apt for an album briefly located on a Greek island to touch on tragedy-esque undertones. The last line “in the rise there lies a schism” seems to tie in well to not only Iver’s own life of struggles but on a more general level as well which may make the sampling of How I Got Over, a track that was performed before MLK Junior’s I Have A Dream speech, seem somewhat ironic for the hopeful nature.
While some lyrics are baptised in religious subtext, some maybe too obvious such as on 33 God’s “I could go forward in the light”, 22, A Million never feels like an album about searching for a higher power but perhaps one that debates the meaningless of it all: on previous track “715 – CRΣΣKS” Vernon asks “Oh then, how we gonna cry? Cause it once might not mean something?”, tying up Bon Iver’s contemplative narrative neatly up. The carefully chosen samples that drive this record seem to touch on this as well, whether it be the sampling of Scottish musician Paolo Nutini’s Iron Sky or Stevie Nick’s Wild Heart which she has professed as being rather abstract.
The focus on electro as opposed to the bread and butter acoustic Bon Iver had mastered on their previous records ties into all this and helps 22, A Million to feel like even more of a burst of fresh air and evolution. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” is cataclysmic as its very core, constantly erupting with bizarre electronic instrumentals veering into lo-fi waters yet Vernon’s ability to drive the song over this and the audibly loud handclasps is testament to the man’s vocal ability. While it seems to be near enough impossible to avoid the cliche comparison, this move very much echoes the same shift that constant innovators Radiohead made on Kid A which, to be fair, is an album that shares similar themes of anxiety throughout so maybe it is pretty apt to contrast.
Comparing and contrasting 22, A Million to anything else around at the moment though is a challenge in itself. While spending time around the likes of Kanye can definitely be felt on certain tracks where the heavily auto-tuned vocals feel like they could click right in place with something off Yeezus, Bon Iver do enough to stand out while doing so. If For Emma, Forever Ago was a lone heartbroken man making music in a cabin in his forest then 22, A Million is that same man veering further into the trees and shrubs and seeing where the path takes him. 2016 has brought with it an abundance of amazing records but none of them sound quite as alien or amazing as this.