Release Date: Sep 30, 2016
Record label: Jagjaguwar
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Electronic, Alternative Singer/Songwriter, Indie Folk
It’s hard to believe that Bon Iver’s third album comes almost a decade after For Emma, Forever Ago first brought Justin Vernon’s folksy songs of loss to an eventual global audience. 22, A Million comes five years on from the eponymous second album, on which opinion was divided. By not simply repeating the successful debut, Bon Iver alienated many fans, and confused yet more.
Review Summary: One of the most important pieces of music you will hear this year.When considering what Bon Iver has done with its first three full-length records, it’s downright incredible. What started as Justin Vernon confronting his demons in a secluded Wisconsin cabin whilst possessing little more than an acoustic guitar evolved into an array of beautiful synthetic sounds, and has now finally taken complete shape with the release of the glitchy, tricked-out 22, A Million. I’d almost be inclined to say that’s what he set out to do; create three innovative, totally separate masterpieces en route to becoming the Radiohead of modern folk.
Five years ago (almost to the exact date as I sit and write this), I traveled from Boise, Idaho to Portland, Oregon and back - over seven hours each way - in less than 24 hours with my best friend Tori to see Bon Iver perform. Many other friends from Boise were also driving over for the same show on a much less restricted timetable, but Tori’s college schedule made this impossible for us. Bon Iver’s music had already made a serious impact in both of our lives, and would continue to do so, but the experience of seeing it live was a transformative one, which was undoubtedly worth the exhaustion.
It’s gotten to a strange unyielding point where you expect to be met with an elegant-yet-flawed sketch of a snowbound cabin should you opt to look up ‘Bon Iver’ in the dictionary. People don’t want to let it go. Male admirers, in particular, hold little desire to drop a fistful of frost atop the coffin of an image that speaks to winning grace and vulnerability, aspects of their own character possibly isolated.
A decade on, and we’re a long way from that log cabin now. When Justin Vernon first emerged into the limelight as Bon Iver, his backstory was almost as compelling as the music contained on For Emma, Forever Ago. As everyone now knows, Vernon retreated to a remote log cabin in Wisconsin after a band break-up, relationship trouble and illness, and proceeded to write and record his debut album.
There’s a line deep in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice wherein Doc, a small-time stoner-sleuth, considers the dissolution of the 1960s, wondering if the decade wasn’t merely “a little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness.” It’s a funny way to think about time—that an entire era can be nudged back into the ether, erased. But on 22, A Million, the extraordinary third full-length from Bon Iver, Justin Vernon echoes Doc’s somber pondering. These are fluttery, skeletal songs that struggle against known trajectories and then threaten to disappear entirely.
Where does an artist go after winning a Grammy and simultaneously becoming the go-to punchline poster boy for sleepy, folk-leaning "intellectual" music? Bon Iver's Justin Vernon answered unexpectedly when he took five years off to focus on other projects: he released albums with side-projects like the Shouting Matches and Volcano Choir, started the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival and, perhaps most critically, collaborated with and contributed to the work of sonic masterminds like James Blake and Kanye West. Their influence is strong on 22, A Million. Opener "22 (OVER S??N)" starts with a droning vocal sample before Mahalia Jackson's pitch-shifted voice croons that "It might be over sooooon.
If it seemed incongruous that Justin Vernon was rolling with Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010 and Yeezus in 2013, Vernon’s new LP as Bon Iver shows that the indie-folk singer and megastar rapper are, in many ways, kindred spirits. They are explorers, musical experimenters pushing against boundaries in pursuit of the truest possible artistic self-expression, with a single-minded dedication that can border on naiveté. Maybe that explains why they lost themselves in the disorienting swirl of fame, or hype, or whatever it is that works to unmoor people who reach a certain stature in popular culture.
“Who is Bon Iver?” That question famously trended when the musical project of Justin Vernon won a pair of GRAMMYs in 2012, including an unexpected procurement of the Best New Artist award. It was the same question posed to Arcade Fire when they won Album of the Year at the previous ceremony, and was mostly laughed off in Internet-land, where artists like Bon Iver and Arcade Fire weren’t just known commodities, they were tentpoles. But in 2016, it’s easy to imagine the same public that laughed off the “Who is Bon Iver” question posing a similar query at its third full-length, 22, A Million.
Justin Vernon’s entire career has been defined by a love-hate grapple with accessibility. He has always appeared uncomfortable with the exposure his band Bon Iver has gotten, considering how every opportunity he’s had to ride the industry wave has been actively approached, but eventually spit out in spite. His bid to perform at the Grammys was cast aside by claims like “I don’t think they wanted us to play”, and when given the option to embrace the fact that he was once the face of whiskey brand Bushmills, he publicly dismantled it with cries of “it felt sickening after awhile”.
In an essay accompanying the announcement of Bon Iver’s first album since 2011, Justin Vernon’s friend Trever Hagen describes 22, A Million as “part love letter, part final resting place of two decades of searching for self-understanding like a religion. ” He goes on to explain that the major stylistic shift on the album serves not just as a stage in the group’s musical evolution, but as a resolution to Vernon’s nostalgic inner saboteur. It is, according to Hagen, a reconciliation with music as a vehicle for understanding oneself and others.
Despite the stoic pretense, Justin Vernon is a punchline. Through the arc of his well-waxen career, the Eau Claire native has come to embody a set of stereotypes — the weathered woodsman, holed up in frosted isolation, radiating the sort of sparse acoustic warmth that has sparked a striking generational enthusiasm for the weathered realism of the current moment, both of folk songwriting and of folk music at large. It’s made him the butt of hackneyed SNL jokes and some of the worst memes around the internet, but something about the project — Vernon’s hushed falsetto and jangled troubadour strum in particular — has become a conduit for a certain generational escapism, a communal reflexivity that, even from the isolation of forested cabin, reaches out to bridge the gap.
Bon Iver's (aka Justin Vernon) debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was unarguably one of the best records of 2007. It's somewhat surprising to think, then, that in the nine years since, Bon Iver has only released one other studio album (2011's Bon Iver, Bon Iver)—until now. 22, A Million proves that, while he might not be one of the most prolific musicians of his generation, Vernon remains among the deepest and most inspired.
Last week, the Guardian printed an interview with Justin Vernon. The man who is, to all intents and purposes, Bon Iver did not seem terribly happy with his lot in life. Not for the first time, he talked wistfully about giving up music altogether – his “dream” is apparently to open a cafe – or vanishing from public. Sometimes he sounded like someone engaged in the traditional American alt-rock star’s pastime of laying it on a bit thick about the pressures of fame.
After a few years spent working on things other than Bon Iver, time spent sorting out heavy personal issues, and a radical rethink of the style that launched Justin Vernon's project to the upper reaches of indie folk popularity, the always searching musician returned in 2016 with an album that redefined Bon Iver in dramatic fashion. 22, A Million is a complicated and intricate record that features chopped-up lyrics, altered vocals, sped-up samples, alternately shimmering and clipped keyboards, treated saxophones, and the occasional gently strummed guitar. Through most of the challenging album, Vernon and his collaborators create miniature structures of sound and space, letting his vocals drift and cascade through sparse and fractured constructs like a lost soul wandering through empty futuristic streets.
Who'd have thought that a bearded guy from the wilds of Wisconsin could help shape music from Chicago to London and beyond? But Bon Iver's Justin Vernon has done just that. Since debuting with the forlorn indie folk of 2007's For Emma, Forever Ago, he's carried on a rich conversation with modern pop, collaborating with Kanye West and James Blake while creating a new version of sensitive-guy Auto-Tune soul on 2011's Bon Iver, Bon Iver. With his long-awaited third album, Vernon completely breaks from his guitar-hugging persona, leaving it in the woods like a Coen brothers corpse as he flexes a mastery of processed vocals, samples, loops, beats, synths and noise, along with more familiar trappings.
For all its numerology, symbols and oddities, ‘22, A Million is a relatively simple record. A few years back, Justin Vernon would shape these songs into gloomy acoustic triumphs. On his third album, he combines samples, complexities, abstractions and endless vocoder as a means of veiling otherwise straightforward recordings. Remarkably, instead of getting caught up in devil-eyed deception and silly distractions, Bon Iver sound more emotionally-charged than ever.
‘8 (circle)’ might strip Vernon’s voice back to something much more human, as beneath him rising chords make the whole thing resemble a wonky version of an inspirational ’80s power ballad, but it’s the otherworldliness of ’22, A Million’ that makes it soar..
During a press conference for 22, A Million, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon explained that he'd been “feeling a lot of anxiety” during the recording progress, and hinted that the album would be an engagement with the future. Yet his response to this anxiety wasn't to cower back into the safety of his trademark acoustic style, but to simultaneously deconstruct and reimagine his sound by embracing technology. Though “deconstruction” implies breaking down, the introduction of electronic sounds has allowed Vernon to simultaneously strip away his music's acoustic foundation and expand Bon Iver's sonic palette.
If anything, the latter-day recorded works of Bon Iver are testament that success does not solve everything. This is not a new idea – long before Kurt Cobain exited the stage, the arts have had their malcontents, mulling over pacts made with the fork-tailed fame fairy. But it is an idea that bears fresh examining, Justin Vernon believes, across 10 more tracks of racked, hyper-modern balladeering.
I’ve missed Justin Vernon’s voice – his distinct yearning falsetto, impressionistic lyrics and worried melodies, all couched in indie folk instrumentation. He and his band do away with the latter, though, on their explosively experimental third album, and the results will likely appeal to old fans and future-music-minded new ones. The voice is still there, of course, as familiar and soothing as ever.
On 22, A Million, his third album under the Bon Iver title, Justin Vernon breaks ground on an innovative and exciting new music through the resolution of a life crisis. It's a record that feels challenging only on the surface: hidden behind its cryptic exterior is a generous and rewarding collection of songs that represent one of the most cohesive and affecting musical undertakings produced in recent years. It's both selfish and generous: an entirely personal undertaking that only completes itself with the listener's complicity and comprehension.
Who the fuck is Bonnie Bear? The year was 2012. Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, hadn’t yet reached the Grammy stage to accept an award for Best New Artist, when the internet erupted with wrath and bewilderment. This humble lumberjack with an inexplicable name had just snatched the statuette from the deserving hands of Nicki Minaj (or maybe, for some, Skrillex), and a few people were, um, a little confused.
Halfway through Obama’s first presidency, the mainstream tilted in such a way it seemed that indie music–that long-beloved genre of fops and sensitives–was actually and authentically reaching the masses. Arcade Fire canonized middle class anguish and were rewarded with a Grammy for Album of the Year; Vampire Weekend’s sophomore record debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts. And then there was the absurd little moment where Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon was deemed famous enough to be mocked by Justin Timberlake on live TV, the unofficial Prince of Pop donning a slick bald-piece to attack the crime of appearing delicate.
Ten years ago, Justin Vernon wasn’t succeeding. Just before he made his first album as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago, he experienced the loss of multiple things—a band and a relationship among them, so the story goes—so he burrowed, regrouped, worked, and wrote songs, proving to himself that he was still whole without them. Within five years, he had membership to elite collaborative brain trusts in both indie rock and hip-hop and a Best Alternative Music Album Grammy—and had stepped away from his band again.
Looking back, it makes sense that nobody could agree on what Bon Iver’s second album was called. Was it simply “Bon Iver,” as some, including the Grammy Awards, referred to it? Or was it the more complicated “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” as many of the record’s rave reviews had it? The lack of consensus five years ago reflected a growing uncertainty about Bon Iver’s identity — a mystery that only intensifies with Friday’s release of an excellent new album “22, a Million. ” Is Bon Iver a person? A band? A physical location? Promoted stories from TravelChatter.
The Upshot: Gorgeous arrangements and three-hundred saxophones carry the weight of Justin Vernon’s meditations and intimidations on religion, fame, and the English language. Short and sweet like a classic LP should be. I grew up with a simultaneous fear and fascination with death, like most moody pre-teens and teenagers do. But with all the interests in drawing skeletons and writing terrible songs and poetry with images of reincarnation and redemption, there was very little thought put into the idea behind the importance of Death and its relation to Life; i.e.: the idea that we could go at any moment in time is what makes life beautiful.
When Justin Vernon began playing ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ amidst a surreal silence at Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival in August, it seemed as though everyone present knew they were about to have something entirely ungraspable placed just before them. Vernon himself was visibly nervous, probably conscious that – for many reasons – the live premiere of Bon Iver’s third album, 22, A Million, might be difficult to come through completely unscathed. Nonetheless, he did.
The eccentric in retreat isn’t a new character in pop — the motivations can be technological, aesthetic, psychological or simply circumstantial — but it has specific meaning in 2016. The relentlessness of modern internet conversation has led to an implicit threat: Be everywhere, or don’t be at all. In that framework, retreat begins to look like reason.
Behind the veil of distorted vocals on Bon Iver's "22, A Million" (Jagjaguwar), Justin Vernon is still singing like a guy who never left the remote cabin in which he started his now nearly decade-old one-man band. He sounds alone in the world — just the way his fans like it — but this time, he is more lost than ever, buried by noise of his own making. Bon Iver's 2007 debut, "For Emma, Forever Ago," was recorded in the isolation of northwestern Wisconsin and set the standard for low-key, end-of-night, dead-of-winter singer-songwriter introspection in indie music.