Five Februarys ago, Justin Vernon represented Bon Iver at the Grammy Awards, when the front man was called to the stage to receive the honors for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album. Later that year, Vernon told tabloids the project was “winding down” and for the next few years the spirit and soul of Bon Iver retreated to a place of rest and solitude, similar to Vernon’s escape to that frigid cabin in the woods where he birthed his stunning debut album For Emma, Forever Ago.
What Vernon didn’t reveal at that time was that he’d be keeping busy writing and recording Grownass Man with The Shouting Matches and Tiderays with Volcano Choir (which led to two different tours). In his time away from Bon Iver he also beefed up the brilliant and angelic chemistry of The Staves by producing their second album If I Was, and curated a music festival in his hometown Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with Aaron Dessner of The National. The hype leading up to the inagaural Eaux Claires festival was that Bon Iver would perform their first show in three years, and after a successful pilot music festival weekend in August 2015, the festival lights for Eaux Claires regained intensity this past August as Bon Iver presented their first set of completely new material in a long, bumpy five years.
At the same time that the band took the stage, a press release that had only been dreamt up in the minds of fans, appeared in real time on the internet – Bon Iver announces new album 22, A Million. Vernon told The New York Times that he wore the number 22 on his sports jerseys growing up and today practices the quirky habit of setting alarm clocks 22 minutes past the hour. “I was big into Taoism in college, and the paradox of duality, and how it’s always one thing and the other—you can never have one thing without the other. So it’s 22 being me, and a million being the Other.”
“It might be over soon” is the first phrase of the album, and it’s also the first phrase Vernon needed to ring out of himself to overcome severe self-doubt about the fruition of this release and depression battles. “Within a rise” of Vernon’s creative efforts in crafting this project, “a scission” forcefully challenged and hindered his productivity. The opening track, 22 (OVER S∞∞N) begins with a heavily auto-tuned effect on the melody “It might be over soon” and then queue the clean, naturally powerful falsetto that Bon Iver aficionados have been waiting for for years. One extraordinary moment on this song happens when the melody for auto-tuned vocals “S∞∞N” is echoed immediately by a vibrantly, beautifully clear toned electric guitar lick.
The era leading up to that moment five Februarys ago at the Grammys was graced by a musical world of pure, organic, acoustic ballads. Songs like Re: Stacks and Flume make you wish you could experience the raw, honest and pure singer/songwriter solo acoustic vibe at one of Vernon’s solo gigs back when he was a student at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. But for the third album, Vernon has closeted the acoustic focus, simple folk songwriting structure and sharpened his mastermind set of studio production skills. 22, A Million is overloaded with samplers, synths, auto-tune and beats that have carefully and uniquely been chopped and screwed (which is probably the result of collaborating with and befriending hip-hop superstar Kanye West). 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠ is the most experimental track on the album and stands out with its uncredited sample of Stevie Nicks’ Wild Heart, funkified tempo and throbbing bass throughout, which almost categorizes it in a blunt cruising hip hop playlist. What’s truly an amazing characteristic of Vernon’s consistency as a legitimate musical genius, is that no matter what style he wants to break out with next, the high pitched, unique falsetto moments will pop into the song, just like he sings the first line of the second verse “Well I’ll wrap you up” with a piercing, cat-meowing delivery.
Vernon returns to the similar songwriting formula he used for Woods from the Blood Bank EP on 715 – CRΣΣKS for this album. Tied with track five, 29 #Strafford APTS, for most exciting and memorable song on the album, 715 – CRΣΣKS is an a capella, heavily auto-tuned, heart spilling prayer that can be interpreted as both lovesickness and the general anxiety Vernon was forced to cope with in the last few years. When you listen carefully with headphones, and squeeze them hard against your ears, you will notice the natural and magical chemistry of Vernon’s energetic, clean belting layer seamlessly criss-cross with his heavily altered, inorganic auto-tuned layer.
Co-written with BJ Burton, 29 #Strafford APTS is probably the only song on the record that is closest to the older, softer music making vibe. The song features acoustic guitar finger-picking and grand piano colors that create stirrings of a Bruce Hornsby vibe. Every note of the high-pitched, falsetto melodic climb in the chorus contributes to the gentle, tender, old-school Bon Iver style, not to mention the absolute doozy of a wailing and cowering bridge of that uniquely elegant cat-meowing crooning.
The list of other collaborators on this project is endless, spanning from beat master Chris Messina, former Deyarmond Edison bandmate Brad Cook, all the way to the light vocal embellishments from The Staves. In a recent press conference, Vernon opened up about his frustration during the record making process. “I almost quit on it, in January of this year, I almost hung the album up. Sort of tired of it, and tired of working on it, and my friend Ryan Olson [of Gayngs] slapped me and said “uh-uh.”
It takes time for the music to really sink in but Bon Iver’s climb from acoustic, indie rock to folktronica/baroque pop is fascinating and flawless. In an existential/math rock album code way, it’s the empty spaces in between the music and lyrics, the moments within the song where the listener and the performer can breathe together, that makes 22, A Million’s experimental sounds intriguing, entertaining, and some of the most memorable music in the entire Bon Iver catalogue. Justin Vernon has taken the throne again in his most critically-acclaimed project and after overplaying 22, A Million, the real question for true fans is, what’s next? Mount Vernon LP 3 or Deyarmond Edison LP 4?
Scott J. Herman