Bon Iver’s new direction is something that was both risky and absolutely necessary.Jagjaguwar, 2016
8.6 / 10
Justin Vernon wants your attention. This is evident from the first moments of the first track on Bon Iver’s latest, 22, A Million. In fact, Vernon demands your attention long before the first note hits your ears. The tracklist demands attention — what with it’s (writer-rage-stroke-inducing) crazy-ass characters and loaded meanings. On first glance, the text for the track listing looks like someone just learned about holding down ‘option’ and hitting the keyboard for the first time. But upon further study, the characters and track names actually fit the music in a sort of overdone, unnatural, but still entirely appropriate way.
To serve as a quick warning before we get too far into this review: This is not For Emma, Forever Ago and it’s even less Bon Iver, Bon Iver. 22, A Million is light years away from recording in a quaint log cabin in the Wisconsin woods. 22, A Million has wild pitch bends, abrupt volume changes, synths, and rarely even a time signature. While the first track, “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” eases the listener in, ever so slightly (but surprise, tightly looped vocals?!), the second track, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠” more typifies The Sound of this album.
More than a few tracks (“715 – CRΣΣKS”, for instance) evoke images of mid-aughts pop-’lectronica a-la Imogen Heap’s “Hide And Seek”. And while it takes a moment to adapt to such an “old” sound (my God, is 2005 considered “throwback” now??), it seems to be done without a hint of irony or nostalgia. In fact, it shows an unusual level of maturity for Bon Iver — a band that has always been very good at doing exactly what they’re good at. It’s a bold move to break out of the safe (and easily repeatable) space that Bon Iver has occupied for almost a decade — but it was about time.
The fourth track, “33 “GOD”” leads us from the initial shock of “What the hell is Justin Vernon thinking?” to “Oh, I see what you did there.” This is a great track. Tons of pitch-shift vocals on a pretty loose melody until about 1:30 into the track, and the band opens it up. The rest of “33 “GOD”” is an experimental jackpot — the musical equivalent of gunning it in a sports car after sitting in light traffic for a while. From here, 22, A Million finds its stride.
After seemingly sitting through an extended intro and break-in period, the rest of the album hums along in Futurism fashion: 22, A Million casts off the old, slow, decaying fog of indie folk and replaces it with weird track names and enough speed and technology to choke Elon Musk. Nothing is jarringly modern, but Bon Iver sheds its penchant for organic minimalism in one quick shake. That’s not to say there’s no soul on 22, A Million (look to “____45_____” and “00000 Million”), but Vernon uses everything available to do something new.
I’ll be honest, I was barely a fan of Bon Iver’s last two albums — they weren’t bad, but they could be a little…boring. For Emma, Forever Ago had a great story and a fairly interesting sound, but I found the majority of Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s tracks bordering on soft rock, adult contemporary beige-ness. It was good background music — I guess — but you had to turn it way the hell up to feel much of anything. 22, A Million is a sharp 90-degree turn from that.
With that having been said, 22, A Million could very easily turn off longtime fans of Bon Iver. It is a sort of a modern throwback sound, and listeners might not be ready for that next wave of nostalgia. On the other hand, this is a very complete album — despite how unconventional it appears. There aren’t a pile of singles here, but there are defnitely a few (“33 “GOD””, “8 (circle)”). There are also a lot of very weird things going on (“21 M♢♢N WATER” for instance), but the weird seems to purposely bridge the gaps between major movements. The whole album works seamlessly together — all the way from the Announcement! of an opening track to the organic and beautiful (but not dull) conclusion comedown on the minimal piano ballad “00000 Million”.
I would recommend 22, A Million to fans and non-fans of Bon Iver. This really is a very good album — and I went in with no expectations at all — but it won’t appeal to everyone. Diehard indie folk fans will either be turned off by this radical departure or possibly turned on to something new. Either way, I applaud Bon Iver’s new direction as something that was both risky and absolutely necessary.