Review: ’22, A Million’ – Bon Iver
How far Justin Vernon has come from that snowy cabin in upstate Wisconsin. It still feels as though that “moody lumberjack-looking dude goes to make a heartfelt folk album in a cabin” narrative just cropped up the other day. But For Emma, Forever Ago is nearly 10 years old and Vernon’s Bon Iver project is ready to move on.
One may have thought that transition period already came on the project’s previous album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver. But for anyone who thought that the turns with synthesizers and other “out there” elements were odd with Bon Iver, then buckle up.
22, A Million is a 10 track collection that comes in just under 35 minutes. However, packed into that time, Vernon spills out an innumerable number of esoteric puzzles and riddles found in the album’s iconography and numerology. Track titles include ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ and ‘666 ʇ,’ (some of the album’s title characters are so strange they don’t fit our typeface) while lyrics include made-up words like “paramind” and “wandry.”
Vernon also appears to have taken a tip or two from his friend, Kanye West. Having collaborated with the celebrated hip-hop star on several occasions, with Yeezus being the notable touchstone for 22, A Million, listeners will hear a number of Kanye elements turning up here: pitched-up vocals, soulful samples and a purposeful left turn that is meant to test listeners.
But whereas Yeezus’ abrasive sound was an attempt by West to filter out the weak, Vernon has attempted to challenge the listener’s perception of beauty and melody. Nearly all of these songs are lovely, but they mix in elements one might not have expected to hear. Little glitches and hiccups throughout the album can make one wonder if their headphones are acting up, but in reality, they are part of Vernon’s test of the audience.
These little flickers in the audio also help to belay the point Vernon makes throughout the album’s lyrics: 22, A Million is a journey of fractured self-discovery from a neurotic, self-conscious virtuoso. Having gone from a nobody to the archetype for a very specific element of indie music, Vernon likely found himself struggling to find who he truly was. If listeners can work themselves past the red herrings Vernon has tossed out in the song titles, they will find a remarkably self-conscious piece of art.
When his voice first comes through clearly on album opener ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, he sings: “Where you gonna look for confirmation?” On album closer ‘00000 Million’: “Must have been forces that took me on them wild courses.” The latter song, a towering achievement that caps an emotional ride full of misdirection and sleight of hand on Vernon’s part, serves as a testament to the power of Bon Iver. “Well it harms, it harms me, it harms,” he sings on the song’s final line. “I’ll let it in.”
22, A Million sputters, stutters and slurs all over the place. But it feels real. It feels like a person attempting to find the confidence to try something new and find beauty in a different place. It is an imperfect project, but 22, A Million demands attention and will serve as a reminder that Justin Vernon’s voice in popular music cannot be confined to a one-note joke. His place is one that should respected with reverence. Here’s hoping 22, A Million gives him the confidence to keep moving.