Before you listen to 22, A Million — Bon Iver’s first album in over five years— it’s best you forget everything you know about Justin Vernon’s enigmatic project. Where ‘For Emma, Forever Ago,’ explored Vernon’s heartache in folksy, stripped-back terms, and the eponymous ‘Bon Iver’ conjured up images of bucolic Wisconsin with its lush, chamber pop, 22, A Million, traces a more inaccessible path.
“More synthetic, less decipherable”
The warmth of Bon Iver’s previous two albums makes way for something that feels more synthetic, and a lot less decipherable. Vernon’s vocals are recognisable, but are hidden beneath distortion, looping and sampling; if you think of artists like Frank Ocean and James Blake, then you’re heading in the right direction. In fact, Kanye West described Vernon as his “favourite living artist,” and Yeezy’s influence can easily be found in the heavily auto tuned ‘715 – CRΣΣKS.’
Beyond Vernon’s sonic ambitions, there are glimmers of the personal: you just have to listen harder to find them. ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, opens the album with a beautifully fragmented account of Vernon’s severe depression and anxiety, whilst making overtures to the album’s more grandiose, existential themes, which are more fully-developed in ‘33 “GOD.”’
However, the album sometimes falls short of its huge ambition; tracks like ‘21 M◊◊N WATER’ and ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ felt underdeveloped. Saying this, songs like ‘29 #Strafford APTS’ are genuinely stunning.
Considering the album’s tendency towards the unanswerable, it seems apt that at points Vernon cannot articulate the ungraspable—because, really, who can?