In Bon Iver’s latest release, 22, A Million, Justin Vernon is inviting you inside his head. However, the difference of five years has changed many a thing for Vernon, including the way he approaches music. The inward, contemplative soul-searching of For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver has been shed for an extrospective, existential outlook; Vernon is examining human existence through the lens of personal experiences. He has described the album title as such: the 22 stands for him, as “the number’s recurrence in his life has become a meaningful pattern through encounter and recognition.” The “a million” represents the rest of humanity, and “everything outside ones’ self that makes you who you are.” He speaks of searching for self-understanding through love and life, and the sentiment is truly reflected through his music.
22, A Million is by far the most produced, and yet starkly bare, album put out by Bon Iver. Vernon’s interest with vocal and instrumental manipulation has been fully realized here with his extensive use of the Messina (a software-hardware amalgamation birthed by Vernon and his engineer, Chris Messina) and the OP-1. Vernon also takes the chance to heavily feature the saxophone, aided by the saxophone collective Sad Sax of Shit. Vernon’s voice is, at times, barely recognizable; he has left the corporeal body presented in For Emma and fully immersed himself in the music, rising up from under the surface occasionally to voice his inner thoughts. Thus, the listener is compelled to actively listen to the lyrics, flawlessly executed but at times submerged under the intense instrumental manipulations.
The tracks are hypnotizing, almost psychedelically so at times; for many, it is easy to get lost in the swirling, half-formed melodies and jagged interludes. The lyrics fluctuate from half-lucid utterances and cryptic messages (“22 (OVER S∞∞N)”) to bold statements and ragged pleas, almost shouted by Vernon in later tracks. More interesting is Vernon’s curious fascination with symbols and numbers that peppers the track titles. An active listener would be in want of a guidebook to follow the mysterious content Vernon has included in 22, A Million, or would need to reconcile the fact that we may never fully understand the methods behind the madness.
22, A Million opens with “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” introduced by a ghostly monotone note and Vernon’s auto-tuned “It might be over soon,” played back on a distorted loop. Lush, layered melodies fade in and out of the track, giving it a decisive ebb and flow. Vernon has sampled Mahalia Jackson’s live version of “How I Got Over” at various points along with the saxophone. (If you’re feeling a slight “Ultralight Beam” vibe here, you’re not alone.) “33 ‘GOD'” features a plaintive, simple piano melody throughout, though by the end of the track it is almost indiscernible. Vernon is fond of the echo on this track; his own vocals are followed by a distorted chorus, and high-sung melodies swirl around a heavy, dark beat, providing an effective counter-balance.
“29 #Strafford APTS” is a solitary return to an acoustic guitar; evidently Vernon cannot fully deny his roots. The track is resonant and familiar, with cryptically poetic lyrics hiding a message of lost love in plain sight. The instrumental manipulation has been stripped away, providing only a faint echo of reverb for punctuation. Vernon’s signature falsetto is haunting here, used sparingly for emphasis on repeated words such as “paramind” and “canonize.” “8 (circle)” begins with a dissonant, whimpering saxophone that fades into a lush synth with an gentle underlaid beat. Vernon’s voice is unadorned by any falsetto or manipulation here, and his lyrics resonate honestly. The saxophone fades in again, confident and slow this time as the instrumentals start to build upon one another and crescendo; Vernon’s voice takes on a new urgency. The track is positively hymnal in nature, and the use of rounds in the last verse only underscores this aspect.
22, A Million is, at first glance, an album for the ear and the brain, not an album for the heart. Yet with every take, the lyrics resonate and permeate; the album itself is forming as you listen. A word to the wise: before dismissing this album on the assumption that Vernon has forgotten his old ways, let yourself fall in and explore the lush musical landscape he has so painstakingly created for himself. Vernon may have released the preconceived notion of traditional “song-writing,” but by no means has he abandoned his need to communicate through song.
Album released: September 30, 2016
–review by Juliana Van Amsterdam