It’s been nearly a decade since Bon Iver first released music that made their name a cultural touchstone, or at least an indie music touchstone. If that seems like a strong word choice, realize that many see frontman Justin Vernon as the perfect indie music archetype or stereotype (depending on who you ask). In a scene marked both by unconventional attitudes and a bunch of guys with beards and flannel rocking a wannabe-lumberjack look, Vernon recorded the first release under the name “Bon Iver” almost entirely by himself while spending a winter in self-imposed exile in a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin. Aside from proving him “the real deal” (he apparently even hunted his own food), the resulting album For Emma, Forever Ago, exploded in popularity a year after its release in 2007. Since this time, he’s released two albums apiece with side projects the Shouting Matches and Volcano Choir, and one album with supergroup Gayngs. He’s also formed a somewhat unlikely relationship with Kanye West, appearing on his critical breakthrough My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010 and its follow-up Yeezus in 2013.
Yet Bon Iver have only released two studio albums total, the most recent being Bon Iver, Bon Iver back in 2011. Vernon has kept himself busy since this time, releasing Volcano Choir’s and the Shouting Matches’s second albums both in 2013, but neither really lived up to what he created with Bon Iver. The aforementioned debut For Emma, Forever Ago was a minimalist production that sounded anything but, layering delicate acoustic guitar strumming and falsetto vocals until it built into an expansive sound. Bon Iver, Bon Iver was Vernon’s first recording with an actual band, and featured a noticeably fuller sound that included electric guitar and keyboards. Vernon’s other projects were of course enjoyable, but Bon Iver’s music was unique for its relative simplicity and warm, pastoral sound.
If Bon Iver, Bon Iver, was a logical progression from For Emma, Forever Ago, then 22, A Million is the next stage in Bon Iver’s evolution. An album heavily reliant on electronic instrumentation and prone to experimentation, 22, A Million seemingly bears little in common with Bon Iver’s debut. But taken in context with the band’s intermediary album and Vernon’s other projects, it’s easier to see how we got to this point. Bon Iver, Bon Iver introduced synthesizer to the band’s repertoire, and the seamless blend of soft electronic sounds and Vernon’s falsetto on tracks like “Calgary” made it seem unlikely the band would abandon this new asset. More telling is the similarity between Volcano Choir’s second album Repave and 22, A Million. This album combined Vernon’s vocals with instrumentals by little-known post-rock band Collections of Colonies of Bees, resulting in what resembled a more experimental Bon Iver release. In other words, the new direction on 22, A Million shouldn’t come entirely out of left field.
In case you’re wondering how unconventional the album might be, here’s the track listing:
Yes, every song has a number and is written in a mysterious, stylized manner. Bon Iver has never been the most straightforward artist, but these track titles do up the ante. More importantly, the album’s experimental aspects are evident as soon as it opens with “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” which revolves around a repeated, pinging note and a distorted sample of Vernon saying “it might be over soon.” Scattered guitar notes and Vernon’s falsetto ground the song, but the chipmunk-like voices and various glitch effects do the real job of setting 22, A Million‘s tone.
In case you were worried, this relatively bold tilt toward electronic effects and experimentation results in some incredible tracks. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” immediately grabs attention with its pounding, industrial beat and holds it with Vernon’s vocoded singing and building horns. “33 “GOD”” is a real album standout, moving between gentle piano and spliced samples during its verses to a powerful drum beat at its chorus. Its lyrics seem like they could either be about lack of faith in a significant other or a divine being (“I didn’t need you that night, not gonna need you anytime”), contributing to the album’s overall cryptic, metaphysical feel. The track “666 ʇ” also adds to this motif, as its subtle electric guitar part and various electronic noises accompany lyrics that seem to document a desire for salvation. The new instrumental effects in each of these tracks may seem alien at first, but their quality should remind you that this is still very much Bon Iver.
That said, not every experiment is going to be a resounding success, which comes with the territory of pushing boundaries. “715 – CRΣΣKS” solely consists of Vernon’s vocoded voice, making it the spiritual successor to “Woods” from Bon Iver’s 2009 EP Blood Bank. However, while this earlier acapella track had layers of auto-tuned vocals to create a choir of varying howls, “715 – CRΣΣKS” is much simpler and arguably too heavy-handed. “21 M♢♢N WATER” starts with a gentle, ethereal feel, but ends with a crescendo of cacophonous, glitch-like noises. Penultimate track “____45_____” utilizes a playback method Vernon and his sound engineer Chris Messina created (dubbed “the Messina”), which splits a melody into multiple harmonies as an instrument is played. Its use on a saxophone works very well on the second half of this track, but the first half of “____45____” is a little too chaotic, especially when Vernon’s voice is at its most warbling.
22, A Million isn’t all uncharted territory for Bon Iver though. “29 #Strafford APTS” utilizes some vocal effects, but is mainly driven by the group’s bread and butter – soft acoustic guitar strumming. “8 (Circle)” echoes Bon Iver, Bon Iver with its warm synthesizer notes, and Vernon largely foregoes his falsetto for a soulful croon a la “Beth/Rest.” Closing out the album is “00000 Million,” a track where Vernon’s vocal performance sounds strikingly similar to the title track of Blood Bank, only now a piano drives the track rather than guitar. All three of these tracks pare down the electronic and experimental aspects of the album in favor of tried and true Bon Iver sounds, so even those repelled by the new direction of 22, A Million should find some consolation.
The trajectory of Bon Iver was clearly not going to move back toward Justin Vernon self-imposed exile solo albums, but parts of 22, A Million still come as a surprise. It may occasionally land on the “what am I listening to?” side of experimentation, yet for the most part the album’s unconventional stylings are an asset, not a liability. There’s enough classic Bon Iver attributes to sate those who enjoyed the first two albums, and enough new material to attract new fans. If nothing else, it can join the ridiculous subgenre “folktronica.”