Bon Iver have redefined their sound in their latest album. “22, A Million” is a complete departure from Vernon’s heartbroken sound of “For Emma, Forever Ago” or the folksy and guitar laden sound of their self titled second record. If you expected a collection of tracks in the same vein of Bon Iver’s ubiquitous hit, “Skinny Love,” you’re not going to find it here. What you will find, however, is an audacious and fresh sound of a band trying to completely reinvent who they are.
Vernon seems to be done with the mainstream sound of yesteryear. It’s not just the odd, numerical track titles. It’s not just the strange vocoder and synthesizer heavy songs or the Aphex Twin-esque beats on tracks such as “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄.” Most notably, Vernon has eschewed the familiar in his lyrics. Truly, it’s hard to understand what personal loss and pain Vernon sings about, yet it’s impossible to argue that Vernon’s pain isn’t the essence of the album. He’s done with love – “Love, at a glance/Is not something that we’ll need,” Vernon croons through heavy vocal distortions, without any backing instrumentation whatsoever. Bon Iver have explored love and heartbreak long enough: “Who will love/What’s love when you’ve hurt?” asks Vernon on “Wisconsin,” from Bon Iver’s first album. “22, A Million,” is an exploration and an expansion beyond both previous albums, a conscious effort to avoid the label of “repetitive.” As such, it self-consciously avoids straying far into the thematic realm which its predecessors explored so deeply.
It’s a testament to the talent of Bon Iver that such poignant emotion can be conveyed with so little instrumentation. There’s a lack of drums, and even Bon Iver’s signature acoustic guitar sound is barely noticeable on this album. The band instead bravely opts for an intense focus on Vernon’s vocals. For the most part it works, though there are moments when it feels just a bit too overdone and distorted, most noticeably the jarring effects in “21 M♢♢N WATER.” With the exception of “715 – CRΣΣKS,” every track has some element of instrumentation, even if it’s just Vernon’s voice run through a vocoder to make a beat.
Fans of Bon Iver who look for a glimpse of the “old sound” can still find it in this album. Tracks such as “33 ‘God’” and “29 #Strafford APTS” sound about as similar to Bon Iver’s older works as you can get in such a disparate album. Yet, both tracks still manage to showcase how Bon Iver have reinvented their sound. “33 ‘GOD’” has a backing vocal beat which sounds simply fantastic — the accompaniment of Vernon’s singing with piano giving way to drums and vocal samples sounds crisp and innovative. “29 #Strafford APTS” is the only track with much guitar picking, which is amazing considering how central this style of instrumentation was in their previous two albums. “21 M♢♢N WATER” is a good example of when the experimental aspects of this album take it a little too far. Not only are the lyrics hard to follow, Vernon’s vocals are overshadowed by too much dissonance.
What really solidifies this album’s presence alongside its predecessors are the final three tracks. The slow and linear build in “8 (circle)” contrasts well with the disjointedness of its preceding track. “____45_____” works in a similar vein to “8 (circle),” also building to a nice, emotionally provocative crescendo as Vernon repeats variations of “I been carved in fire/I been caught in fire.”
These tracks find a good balance of the new and the old Bon Iver sound, and the duality of the two sounds come together extremely well. “00000 Million” is a more subdued closing track in contrast with the rest of the album, but this allows for a poignant vocal delivery of some of the album’s best lyrics, namely “If it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in.” It’s tracks like this that really display Vernon’s skill at balancing the duality of this album: at times intensely personal and distant from us as a listener, but at the same time so emotionally powerful that we can’t help but get caught up in his pain.
It’s apparent that “22, A Million” is a leap of faith for Vernon into uncharted territory. It is rare that I hear an album convey so much raw emotion while at the same time being so innovative in its sound. I’m reminded of Radiohead’s “Kid A” or Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” (which Bon Iver was featured on) in that these artists completely pivoted on their musical direction with amazing results. The success of “22, A Million” to redefine a band so completely, while retaining all of Vernon’s raw emotional power, is truly amazing.