To treat the latest album by Bon Iver as simply a musical experience would perhaps be misguided when in reality there is something enigmatic about 22, A Million, making it hard to quantify and even simply review. It is, at it’s core, an experience that brings to mind images out of a film, or inspires one to close their eyes and let the poetic lyricism and mounting layers of vocals wash over them like a wave.
Albums by Bon Iver have always enclosed moments of emotional clarity and those who listen often recall songs attached to moments rather than just the music alone. “The Wolves pt. 1 & 2” calls on images of the woods and a long, winding road with a single driver speeding across it. “Skinny Love” recalls moments of teen angst and young love. A listener using his Justin Vernon’s music as a backdrop to their day, be it at home or outdoors appreciates it for the simplistic beauty that comes from a well executed album where the vocals, instrumentation and lyrics all flow with a well practiced grace. Those listening closely though catches the complexities of how those seemingly simplistic verses invite the audience in for songs that offer a connective tissue to their surroundings.
It’s an astonishing piece of work and one I find myself ill equipped to write about. Forgive the rambling.
The opening track ends up being the least interesting in “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, with the mantra “it might be over soon” ebbing and dipping throughout the song, hinting at a album much more dour than it ends up being. However, despite being easily forgotten once the end of the album has come, it is largely indicative of what the musicality is going to entail, leaning heavily on synths and dream pop aesthetic while imbuing the vocals with layers emulating Vernon’s side project Volcano Choir. Compared to his first two albums which relied heavily on basic instrumentation structure and built on towering vocals and touching lyrics, 22, A Million brings the offbeat musicality of the instrumentation into the focus and is better because of it.
“33 “GOD””, he liveliest song on the album is winsome in it’s immediacy, breaking through with a surge of melodic force, using keyboards and sprightly percussion, maybe best encompasses the tonality of the latest album. It’s one that for once seems to be acknolwedging his bystanders rather than being caught up purely in his own mind and memories.
I’d be happy as hell, if you stayed for tea
(I know so well that this is all there is)
This is how we grow now, woman
A child ignored
“29 #Stafford APRTS” reminds the listener of the wounds the singer sang so long about in his prior albums with a blistering, slow burn of a song that is explosive in each one of it’s choruses.
I hold the note
You wrote and know
You’ve buried all your alimony butterflies
Echoing the fullness of Vernon’s Volcano Choir days, the song layers vocals beautifully, utilizing the folk inspired nature that made him so popular in the first place before dissolving into the last chorus with vocals that splinter off completely, coming in as static heavy as if they were playing through an old radio.
As a 180 we then get “21 MOON Water” with its soul inspired vocals, meditative pace and hints of strings that dance and weave their way into a song that begins with straight forward instrumentation and veers into the auto tune percussion and breakdowns. Even horns get their moment to shine in a strictly instrumental ending. It’s the fluid transition between it and “8 (Circle)” though that shows off how mighty of an artist Vernon is as his voice begins cast about, as if it’s coming from far away, as it slowly builds over a backdrop of sound. The vocal layering and then musical build that’s utilizing a circular interlude creates an all encompassing sound. Within it though the poetic lyricism shouldn’t be missed.
Say nothing of my fable, no
What on earth is left to come
Who’s agonized and gnawed through it all
I’m underneath your tongue
For Emma, Forever Ago introduced the music world to Bon Iver with an album that saw the singer songwriter in a state of assessing and disclosing his personal demons. It was an album drenched with pain, as “Flume” so beautifully emotes to the listeners. Bon Iver saw an artist that while still dealing with pain was open to the notion of hope, despite what seemed like excruciating isolation is standout song “Holocene”:
And at once I knew I was not magnificent
Strayed above the highway aisle
Jagged vacance, thick with ice
And I could see for miles, miles, miles
22, A Million isn’t just a third masterpiece from an artistic visionary but an album that’s finally opening itself up to it’s listeners. It’s asking people to stay and listen. Despite the disconnect and alien like auto-tune that suggests a Vernon further removed from musical gravity, it’s an album that’s succumbed to the warmth that music can provide. Listening to 22, A Million is a comforting experience, it’s an immersive one and it’s rich with experimentation from the synths, to the titles of the songs to way a typical verse crashes and breakdown into a slower, stagnated bridge that grows into an explosive third act of the song. One of the greatest achievements any artist can do with an album is to offer a sense of solace, be it being relateable or creating an atmosphere that clicks so strongly with a listener that when they press play they feel as if they’re returning to something both great but familiar.
22, A Million is perhaps so immediately welcoming because it’s bringing it’s listeners a sense of home, of being welcomed back after staying out in the dark for too long.