It’s something of a cliché for musicians to “go electronic.” Ever since synthesizers first became accessible, eccentric musicians like Cat Stevens and Neil Young used electronics to create some of their most polarizing works in the 1970s and 80s. The trend has continued to contemporary artists like Sufjan Stevens, who used a combination of keyboards, samplers, and an orchestra to create the epic The Age of Adz in 2010.
Musicians usually resort to electronics to explore their wildest ideas while creating an expansive sound on limited resources. Justin Vernon, returning to his Bon Iver project after a five-year absence, both succumbs and subverts this stereotype with the extremely personal, sparse, and inward-looking 22, A Million.
On 22, A Million, Vernon treads new ground while still keeping intact his signature calling cards. This is the same person that followed up the minimal, heartbreak-strewn folk of For Emma, Forever Ago with 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, an album that combined baroque instrumentation with complex, progressive rock-esque song structures.
In between the last Bon Iver album and this one, Vernon performed in a bevy of side projects, from the cinematic post-rock of Volcano Choir to the frankly bizarre folk/hip-hop Jason Feathers. But it’s Vernon’s continued collaborations with James Blake and Kanye West during this time that most predicate the sound of 22, A Million. They are perhaps the closest kindred spirits to Vernon’s artistic energy, and he’s taken lessons from his time with both of them.
From Blake, Vernon learned to use his voice as his greatest weapon, employing heavy manipulation and vocal layering to deliver some of his most impassioned performances yet. Meanwhile, Vernon has found himself following a similar artistic path as Kanye. Like West, rather than releasing watered-down, readied-for-the-masses versions of his earlier works, Vernon doubled down on what makes him so unique and pivotal in music. If Bon Iver, Bon Iver was akin to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, making a piece of work as experimental as it is accessible, then 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s Yeezus – a radical and at times difficult album that runs the risk of alienating the same fans that first brought Bon Iver such acclaim.
Mining influences from avant-garde contemporary electronic musicians, such as the indecipherable glitchy samples of Oneohtrix Point Never and the distorted bass swells of Haxan Cloak, the songs on 22, A Million create environments that are simultaneously beautiful and uneasy. But that isn’t to say Bon Iver has eschewed its folk roots. Bon Iver’s signature use of elegant acoustic guitar and piano is still a staple on the record. On 22, A Million, Vernon and co. allow both these sounds to coexist while still being at odds with one other, creating a masterful interplay.
Some songs, such as “29 #Strafford APTS” and “666 ʇ” feel like long-lost For Emma, Forever Ago cuts, retrieved from an alternate cyborg universe. While the melodies and vocal stylings of the album are unmistakably Vernon, the song structures are less meticulously crafted as they were on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and more inherently formless. Songs rise and swell on their own accord as layers are peeled and removed, and instead of choruses there are brief calls and responses.
22, A Million is both the most vulnerable and cryptic Vernon has ever appeared. His lyrics are known for being at times notoriously esoteric. Depending on what wavelength the listener is on, it’s either meaningless word salad or the painting of a beautiful picture. 22, A Million continues this trend, yet the album also has a handful of blunt lines that are so self-effacing it’s almost humorous. For every brand new word or mythology that Vernon creates on the fly, there’s a reference to what hotel he’s staying at or a mention of the 1980’s TV series The A-Team, for whatever reasons. The primary theme of
The primary theme of 22, A Million is that of Vernon coping with anxiety and fame. Vernon wants to pour his heart out as much as he wants to hide behind a cloak of anonymity, and 22, A Million is the ultimate compromise. As the sounds of the album fight with each other, Vernon fights through his insecurities to realize that his life will never be the same as he comes to grips with his unexpected celebrity status, for better or for worse.
22, A Million is only 35 minutes long, and it’s always been one of Vernon’s strengths to distil essential ideas into a tight package, yet at times the brevity makes the album a frustrating listen. Tracks can have a tendency to stop abruptly before they seem due for a satisfying climax. “715 – CRΣΣKS” and “____45_____” feel like intermissions, and while they certainly are well-made and add to the overall experience of the album, they fail to stand alone. On a longer album, intermission tracks designed to piece the album together wouldn’t be much of a problem, but considering the brevity of 22, A Million, they are given a burden that they falter under.
22, A Million features some of the most beautiful and awe-worthy moments of the year, if not the decade, and Vernon’s uncompromising vision continues to be unrivaled. However, one can’t help but want more, especially considering how long it’s been since the last Bon Iver record. On the other hand, there are worse problems than desiring more, and maybe the tinge of emptiness one gets as the album ends is how we’re supposed to feel.