“22, A Million,” the Sept. 30 release from Justin Vernon’s most celebrated musical outlet, Bon Iver, is his most complete and experimental musical work, and a welcome return to form after a five year hiatus.
The opening track, “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” sets the tone for this often unsettling album. Through 34 minutes and ten tracks, “22, A Million” brims with introspective reflection and clashing instrumentation, bound together with an understated piano. With this release, Vernon reasserts the album as a cohesive work, meant to be listened straight through.
There are hints of Bon Iver’s earliest work, “For Emma, Forever Ago” scattered throughout “22, A Million.” As “21 M◊◊N WATER” begins, there is a subtle reverberation of steel strings, calling back the metallic rattle of “Skinny Love.” The horns on “____45______” echo those first heard on “For Emma.”
Elements made familiar on Bon Iver’s second album, “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” also make a return: the scratching, gnawing sounds; the visceral, repetitive drumming on “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”; the guttural cry of “715 – CR∑∑KS”; the soft synthesizer soundscape of “8 (circle).”
“____45______” is, subtly, the most engaging song on this record. Vernon sings “I been carved in fire/I been caught in fire/What comes prior to?” His lyrics and intonation are reminiscent of a hymnal, speaking of formation through trial, ending with a banjo-driven woodsy aura. He flawlessly combines a vocal effect reminiscent of a vocoder with the sounds of Americana (as also heard on “29# Strafford Apts”). The song taps into the American vein of gospel work, calling out in unanswerable questions and anguish.
It is almost futile to trace inspiration in this work. “22, A Million” draws on: the spacey, yet warmly organic echoes of Sigur Ros; the vocal distortion of Imogen Heap; the overdriven drums of Death Grips; the sped-up samples of vintage Kanye West; the pain and anger of Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”; the echoing computer-scape of Radiohead’s “Kid A” throughout “666 ʇ.”
As with his previous effort, “Bon Iver” Vernon chops and garbles the warmth and imperfection of his music into a fusion of the electronic and organic on “22, A Million.”
On “715 – CR∑∑KS” Vernon uses this vocal transformation to accent emotion, as his past collaborator Kanye West did on 2008’s “808s and Heartbreak.” Vernon pushes his voice to breaking throughout this track: “Finding both your hands/As second sun came past the glass/And oh, I know it felt right/And I had you in my grasp.” As Vernon reaches “grasp” his voice crumbles. The song haunts, and the impact is owed chiefly to the production. If nothing else, this album serves as an antidote to arguments against digital vocal production.
Vocal transformation is core to Bon Iver’s sound; however, relying too heavily on this has the potential to starve listeners of a natural voice. The infrequent returns to an unadulterated pitch and timbre are refreshing. The balance here teeters but does not fail.
This record has a meditative quality, requiring a similarly solitudinous listen from start to finish. “22, A Million” combines the sound of Bon Iver’s two previous albums, creating a distinctly processed, yet organic musical soundscape, rolling out a soundtrack to the deep winters of Vernon’s native Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
This album has foibles; but, after a multi-year hiatus, “22, A Million” is a gift to listeners from Justin Vernon.