In 2012, Justin Vernon announced he was putting his musical brainchild, the beloved and acclaimed Bon Iver, to rest on an indefinite hiatus. In the years since, he has been essentially in hiding. There were occasional collaborative efforts with the likes of Kanye West and James Blake, a blues-rock record with The Shouting Matches, and other odd appearances. Now, the silence has been officially broken with Bon Iver’s third record, 22, A Million, a huge leap forward both sonically and creatively for his group.
For many die hard fans, the first listen through may be quite jarring, and feel as if Vernon has lost his mind. In some ways, he has. There are many similarities between the events that led to his debut For Emma, Forever Ago, and what led to this new record. The world had broken him down, and he retreated inward. Out of the anxiety and depression riddled episodes came the line “it might be over soon.” This line would become the backbone of the album opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” as well as a theme throughout; it’s his coping mechanism as he desperately searches for understanding of self. Grappling with the dichotomy of self (22, his favorite number) and the world (A Million) is the central focus here.
To reflect this self-aware chaos, the record is marked by Vernon’s exploration of obscured and distorted sounds. He combines the organic with the synthetic; acoustic instruments clashing with heavily manipulated vocals and electronic effects. There are traces of folk, jazz, gospel, and electronica, yet it is none of those things. 22, A Million is uniquely undefined, defying any kind of singular label. An attempt at describing this music might be to call it “apocalyptic folk.” Is it strange? Yes. Is it satisfying? Also, yes.
Even though the surface layers are lined with sonic freak-outs and hyper experimentation, underneath lie some gorgeous and deeply affecting compositions. “715 – CRΣΣKS” is a vocal-only ballad, drenched in a vocoder effect, but the pain is still felt with each raw voice crack. “29 #Strafford APTS” is simple and emotional folk, pairing acoustic guitar, piano and sax flourishes with glitchy effects. Perhaps the two most beautiful tracks are “8 (circle),” a stirring power ballad, and “00000 Million,” a heart wrenching piano lament.
As intensely different as it is, it’s not a complete departure. The core of 22, A Million is still undeniably Bon Iver, with lines that can be drawn back to both For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The enigmatic lyricism, the sorrowful timbre of Vernon’s voice, and the spaciously ambient yet intimately bare nature of the arrangements still define these compositions. What you’ll find is an immersive and personal experience, and a one-of-a-kind visionary who has now made three distinct and equally excellent albums.