By Blake Parker
Bon Iver’s newest album, 22, a Million, was released September 30th in the same characteristic glisten-and-glow that has surrounded the group’s music since the beginning. But with this album, instead of glisten and glow surrounding steel-string guitars and soft pianos, it hovers over a choir of chopped and sampled vocals and persistent electronic rhythms. The sound of this album seems much more parallel to frontman Justin Vernon’s side project, Volcano Choir, while previous albums of Bon Iver may have recalled Vernon’s earlier band, DeYarmond Edison, which followed a more straightforward singer-songwriter format. While many of the working parts of the band’s sound are new and different, every track is led by the stylized falsetto singing that likely made most – myself at the least – fall in love with Bon Iver’s music.
That singing, as with a number of things responsible for Bon Iver’s existence and success, was at first a mistake – or rather, a joke. It’s rumored that when Justin first sang this way, it was essentially a spoof – a way of faking the voice in a song the band was covering in their earlier days. The band itself formed after a fallout in Vernon’s relationship with a significant other, and a serious case of mono that sent him home, where he shut himself away in a cabin for the winter. Even the band’s name comes from a botched translation of “bon hiver,” the French phrase for “good winter.” Vernon preferred the misspelled “iver” from “hiver,” as the latter reminded him too much of the word liver (where his sickness was contained).
Intentional or not, the band has found an extensive and dedicated fan base in their music, and rode the success of the first two albums for many tours around the globe… but that was five years ago. Only in the last year did the band begin to hint at a new album in the works, with fresh songs being played on tour, and with a single called Heavenly Father, written for the film Wish I Was Here, which showcased the very same broken-vocal electronic style which now paints the entire landscape of 22, a Million. At the end of July, Bon Iver’s social medias posted a teaser video, 22 seconds in length – a near definite hint of a forthcoming album.
I was sweating in the heat of the morning sun, lying in the bed of my van with my girlfriend Kaela, when she rolled over with her phone and a level of excitement that rivaled my body temperature, and we listened to the first track of 22, a Million, released as the first single leading the new album. 22 (OVER S∞∞N) inflated and filled out every corner of the scene I was in: sandy dunes, scrub grass, a coastal campground bath house, a sweet and merciful gust of wind. The song struck me so intensely because of the setting in which I was first hearing it, and because of the freshness of Bon Iver’s sound. The song hardly even has any chord movement, but rather exists as a droning note of the vocal sample with flourishes of high-timbre electric guitar, harmonious synthesizers and multiplying vocal samples, and the savory syrup of breathy saxophone.
If 22 (OVER S∞∞N) is the gentle introduction to Bon Iver’s new approach, the following track and pre-released single 10 d E A T h b R E a s T is less forgiving. Starting out with an abrasive and driving mechanical rhythm, the track has moments of tender vocals and chirpy samples and moments of dark bass booms and sharp clips of percussion, not to mention a creative and truly emphatic obscenity in the lyrics. The second single released with a lyric video of pictogram-esque symbols and visuals to parallel the lyrics.
The following track 715 - CRΣΣKS, employs a grittier vocoder vocal style, for which Bon Iver is also known in former works of theirs. It’s a straightforward structure, with no more than this single element composing the whole song, giving the track an electronic a capella feel. Next follows the third and final pre-released single, 33 “GOD”, which has an airy and almost cinematic sound. It’s clear in more than a few moments that this track was intended as the major single preceding the album, as is hinted by big, echoing drums and some of the most cutting lyrics of the whole album, based on my listen.
29 #Strafford APTS, provides the first purely acoustic moments in 22, a Million. The track features multiple different textures of Vernon’s vocals, which add dimension and flavor to the palate of familiar sounds spanning the album so far. Lyrics about bending maps and mending gaps suggest the theme of heartache and love at a distance – a not too foreign topic for the band.
Despite my expectations, 666 ʇ persists in the innocence that defines Bon Iver’s sound, rather than departing from it. Vocoders, washed out electric guitars, and blippy samples abound; however, new instruments such as upright bass make their appearance here in darker moments of the track, threatening to prove me wrong to mention innocence at all. Indeed, the duality of innocence and melancholy pierce through 22, a Million from song to song – appearing in differing forms but consistent patterns throughout each track, be it in lyrics or inflection, mood or instrumentation.
666 ʇ bleeds fluidly into 21 M♢♢N WATER, which is the largest departure from the mellow singer/songwriter structure that the album follows for the most part. The song moves from the blend out of 666 ʇ into a section with slithering vocals and stingy, almost computer-glitchy samples, which then gives way to the saxophone heard earlier, winding its way in and far, far outside of tonal key – leading the track in adventurous and explorative nature toward 8 (circle).
This track, for me at least, cut through the musical technique and composition elements and got down to the stories behind the music. The song, among much of the album’s content matter, seems to deal with the role love plays in personal identity, and whether love at its purest form means sacrificing oneself fully or if doing so in fact dooms love in the end. It resonated with me on a level of self versus soul mate, and seemed to grapple with a balance: the difficulty of giving yourself too completely to others, or at least more completely than they give themselves to you; or if receding too far can truly remove from you the possibility to connect with anyone, even the closest ones to you, due to an attempt to compensate for the aforementioned overly-openness.
____45____, one of the few tracks with no obvious sub-meaning in its title, welcomes the warm return of saxophones whirling around Vernon’s honest, unaffected voice. A single line takes us through the entire first section of the track, before a strange, altered saxophone wobbles around melodiously. As the song structure seems to recall something of deep, Appalachian-birthed blues, a sweet sharp banjo hops in right on cue as if to affirm the hunch before melting into echo.
In the final track, 00000 Million, grand and upright pianos bookend Vernon’s gospel-like singing and a sample reminds us that our days are numbered. The track ties up the album cleanly with an excess of emotion and altogether none at the same time. The album, as a whole, pioneers a new and emotionally captivating sound for Bon Iver, without disregarding the sound that built the band in the beginning – and while that may be a clichéd album review perspective, it certainly merited a sigh of relief from the traditionalist fans that gravitate more toward the band’s self-titled album.
Much of 22, a Million, thematically speaking, deals with intense internal struggle and its manifestation in the trivial. I see this personally most in the lyrics, where dealing with significant emotional fatigue is superseded by the daunting task of, say, folding the laundry. Musically the album explored new corners without a doubt for the band, and potentially for modern music as well, if not at least the sub-genre of singer/songwriter and acoustic music blending into naïve electronic soundscapes. 22, a Million, in my opinion, deserves all the applause it’s receiving and more, both critically and as a tool for emotional expansion and coping with hardships.