When Bon Iver took the stage at last year’s Eaux Claires festival, reviving a band after four years away, it had all the feelings of a reunion show. This is somewhat rare in today’s music landscape -– even with lead Justin Vernon carrying on in other bands and projects, seeing a bonafide reunion for a band with just two albums was strange, and a testament to how astronomically fast Bon Iver grew from 2007 to 2011. Well-known for warm instrumentals and Vernon’s other-worldly falsetto, the 2015 concert showed the band returning and turning a new leaf. A year later, at this year’s Eaux Claires, Bon Iver played their new album in full, presenting a very different sound to a waiting audience.
In all the lead-up to 22, A Million, various promotional materials screamed the band’s new direction. The announcement was coupled with a note from Vernon’s friend, explaining that the album dealt with death and new leases on life. High concept art lined the band’s social feeds, as well as building sides in major cities. On the day of the album’s release, newspapers appeared below these billboard art pieces. Speakers on small boomboxes were tested to their limits, playing the album in its entirety.
The music reflects this avant garde promotion. 22, A Million didn’t hit ears in a vacuum –- three singles were released ahead of September 30 –- but taken as a whole, this is a wildly different listening experience than the acoustic folk of 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago and even the minimalist chamber music of 2011’s Bon Iver. On this record, Vernon channels everything through the “Messina”, an original synthesizer that pipes the track’s vocal and instrument tracks through the same channel, creating an almost disconcerting brand of Auto-Tune.
This creative use of synthesizer effects makes this Vernon’s most challenging effort yet –- and shows the influence of his work with Kanye West. West’s career took a similar turn from simple to complex, going from old school soul samples on Late Registration to, eventually, the screaming industry of Yeezus. Vernon’s footprint was all over the latter, acting as the angel in the room through Kanye’s seething, bitter verses on white privilege. West was turned on to Vernon after hearing “Woods,” a track off the Bon Iver EP Blood Bank. At the time, it was Vernon’s most daring work yet –- a looping vocal that is repeated ad nauseum, over itself, until the vocal is both lyric and instrumentation.
This work previews the push-pull of organic and digital on 22, A Million. On Bon Iver, we were submerged headfirst into pools of organic instrumentation -– saxophone, strings, and quiet guitars. Here, those elements are still on hand, but often they’re more brash and immediate. “666 ʇ” starts with a reverbed guitar lick, but mixes in a whipping record scratch halfway in to disorient you. On “____45_____,” saxophone is alone and in your face, blended to mix with Vernon’s voice in memorable, yet disconcerting ways.
The beauty of 22, A Million is how Vernon is still able to work beautiful melodic turns into this super-modern sound. Because the organic moments here are more sparing, they hit hard. Standouts like “29 #Strafford APTS” edge closer to Bon Iver, with rising, warm strings echoing over Vernon, whose falsetto crackles in the Messina like a campfire. “33 “GOD”” opens with gorgeous piano and shimmering synths, offsetting the chip-tuned Vernon, who provides his own backup singing on the ballad.
As for the lyrics? Sure, there are long stretches on this album that qualify as Vernon-speak (“Darling don’t a failure fright / Times the raker / And I’ll rack it up”), but when the music swells, Vernon always knows when to paint a picture. Whether it’s “sharing smoke, in the stair up off the hot car lot” in a mid-tone on “29 #Strafford APTS” or the full-chested “I’m standing in your street now, no / and I carry his guitar” on the monolithic “8 (circle),” there is plenty that sticks with you, long after the album has run its course.
Those sparing moments bring about a stronger appreciation for Vernon’s craft, how he’s able to create something entirely new and still keep it grounded in Bon Iver’s sound. It’s a new direction, but still so familiar that it warrants diving into again and again.
Julia Holter – Hello Stranger
Justin Vernon & Aaron Dessner – Big Red Machine
Bon Iver – 29 #Strafford APTS
Jon Hopkins – I Remember
Hundred Waters – Down From The Rafters
Sufjan Stevens – I Walked
Autre Ne Veut – Gonna Die
Bon Iver – 8 (circle)