By Kat Collison
“It might be over soon,” croons Justin Vernon on the opening track of Bon Iver’s latest release, 22, A Million, echoing a motif of transience that runs through all three of their LPs. However, almost a decade since For Emma, Forever Ago, (the love child of Vernon’s own heartache and Northern Exposure) 22, A Million could be its antithesis, the pair mostly connected by Vernon’s fragile falsetto and the comma splice in their titles.
By far their most complex work, 22, A Million at times feels more like an interactive exhibit at the Tate Modern rather than mere auditory experience. The track listing is cryptic (‘29 #Strafford APTS’ being pronounced, “twenty-nine hash tag Strafford apartments”) but feels unnecessary anyway. A rejection of “conventional” album structure, no one track features the overt hammering of a lyrical phrase that would then elevate it to track title status. Instead, timbres are playful, experimental, mournful. Often, it is difficult to identify what is making what sound, as samples, vocals and electronically processed instrumentation are seamlessly weaved together into soulful sentiment.
The album opens with two pre-released singles: ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ and ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ which both rely on relentless refrain, whether it be poignant and pitiful lyricism (“it might be over soon”) or penetrative and pounding electronic bass. The third single off the album: ‘33 “GOD”, showcases Vernon’s taste for sampling as Paolo Nutini’s ‘Iron Sky’ is effortlessly and expertly slotted in against the minimalist piano motif. Each individual element of the piece is stark, but as said piano, vocal distortion, “I find God and religion” and driving percussion are slathered on top of each other, it’s mesmerizing. Indeed, there’s a catch in my chest as Vernon lilts: “I didn’t need you that night… I’m just gonna take it as it goes/ I could go forward in the night, when I’m gonna fold my clothes.”
‘29 #Strafford APTS’ reeks of a nostalgia for something that doesn’t belong to you. Its wistfulness and peacefulness, accented by soothing brass and soaring strings, is like Wisconsin snowfall…perhaps a nod to Bon Iver’s For Emma days. Indeed, ‘8 (circle)’ carries an air of Bon Iver, Bon Iver in the resounding clarity of Vernon’s vocals, discretely complemented by static synth. It is a moment of tranquility, away from the Moby-mangled web of samples, distortion and electronica. In fact, this is alluded to once more with ‘00000 Million’ (the last in a ten album series of pretentious titles), which rounds off Vernon’s artistic assembly with conclusiveness and purity.
Though fans of For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver might miss the bruised and aching folk/rock that so defined Bon Iver’s former sound – long gone is the steady guitar strum and the tinny tremolo – 22, A Million is progressive and universally vicarious. Its merit lies not in tracks like ‘Skinny Love’, geared for performance by every broken-hearted street busker ever, but the richness of each track as it ebbs and flows, gearing them to be played over and over again. And as always, ever doleful, Vernon’s “still standing in the need of prayer”.
8.8 / 10