Bon Iver – 22, A Million
by Ed Jones
Producer: Justin Vernon
Singles: 22 / 10, 33 ‘GOD’
Justin Vernon has come a long way from being the guy who recorded a bunch of intimate folk songs in a cabin somewhere in Wisconsin one winter, and yet on his third album 22, A Million it feels like he’s gone full circle, and then a little bit further.
Every song on this new album feels like it’s been broken down a thousand times and then put back together as a wire frame rather than a whole. And yet this cut up, glitchy approach has resulted in some of the most beautiful music released this year, maybe even the past decade. These songs feel just as warm and intimate as that first album nine years ago, sometimes even more so, which is unusual for such an ‘electronic’ album. This isn’t to say Vernon has ditched classic instruments in favour of computers, synthesizers and the likes, but more in the same vain as Radiohead’s classic Kid A, he’s taken everything we knew about his music and broken it down into the bare essentials.
When this album was announced, along with the two songs 22 (OVER S∞∞N) and 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄, I wasn’t sure what to expect, the weird song titles, the glitchy music, it took a long time to grow on me, but with the release of the masterful 33″GOD” I soon realised that Vernon was onto creating something different, something unique. His lyrics are still off kilter, the sound perfectly relatable in the context of the songs, but taken out of context they’re have a surreal angle to them, sometimes they sound saccharine, but Vernon’s trembling voice keeps them on the right side, for the simple reason of the passion he puts into every performance. For example ‘I’d be happy as hell/If you stayed for tea.’ from 33″GOD” would sound horrendously corny if it came from anyone else, but here it’s powerful. Similarly, on 29 #Strafford APTS, the song paints a beautiful picture of two lovers trying to find themselves, but the lyrics are more like dadaist free-writing.
Other stand out tracks include the aforementioned 33″GOD” and 666 ʇ. The religious contrast in these titles suggest Vernon’s looking outward for answers this time instead of focusing inwards like he has on previous albums, the themes put forward on this album are broader, more existential, but they still have the same fuzzy intimate feeling as all of his other work. 666 ʇ in particular asks these questions; How to know who to write/How to know who can cull up all the questions, it’s such a challenging lyric, one that goes unanswered, but suggests that maybe there’s no point trying to answer it. The song is filled with both these hard to answer questions, cut up electronic beats and the typical warm guitars and horns that we’re used to in Vernon’s work and it builds such a beautiful painting it’s hard not to get lost in the soundscape. Before being led into the strange, empty universe of 21 M♢♢N WATER, a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on the industrial desolation of a Dirty Beaches record.
22, A Million is by no means an easy record to listen to, but it’s a rewarding one, it can be beautiful, it can be messy and it can be haunting, much like life itself, which in the end seems to be the main point of the album. Vernon has progressed beyond traditional song writing, though he never really did much of that anyway, into something far more experimental and unsettling, in the same way Radiohead did with Kid A sixteen years ago. Vernon hasn’t just crafted something beautiful, he’s made something important, an album that should go down in the history books of music.