Justin Vernon's third endeavor as Bon Iver has led to something arresting, rough, and unique—but we can't help but want more.
Bon Iver (government name: Justin Vernon) doesn't like to talk much—but when he does, he has a habit of getting under some peoples' skin. When he announced he might be ending Bon Iver—which is technically a band but mostly refers to Vernon himself— and likened making music to turning a faucet on and off, someone wrote an angry open letter for Vice under the name Cinnabon Iver that called him "The worst thing to happen to guitar music since Blessid Union of Souls." When he made Bon Iver (the album) in 2011, which was purposefully crafted to sound bigger and different than his solo-made, acoustic guitar driven first album For Emma, Forever Ago, hipsters cried that he had become too mainstream and that his indy sound was dying. When he recently criticized Beyoncé for having Pepsi sponsor her tour, people were quick to point out that he once appeared on a Bushmills whiskey billboard—even though he has since said he regrets posing for the ad. (Admittedly, there's just cause to tell Vernon to sit down as a relatively rich white guy attempting to tell a black woman to stop making money. That said, it shouldn't be too surprising that Bon Iver—the godfather of the plaid shirt, dirty ball cap, beat-up sneakers Williamsburg look—is wary of the notion of selling out.)
But all of that is just talk. Vernon's real voice shines through when he makes music, and the results are consistently excellent—just like they are on the Bon Iver's newest album, 22, A Million, which is out today.
The album and its songs are all named after numbers (and Wingdings fonts) that have importance to Vernon. He told The New York Times that the number 22 has been his favorite ever since he played sports as a kid, and that he like to set wake-up alarms to 22 minutes after the hour. And while recording and distorting his own voice for album's opening track, he discovered a piece which sounded like he was saying "two," so, voila! But all of that just kind of adds up to cuteness. It's in the music that Vernon's true ambitions, curiosities, and fears shine through.
22, A Million sees Vernon moving further away than ever from the folksy acoustic guitar vibes that made him famous. The campfire choruses that defined Bon Iver the album remain, but on 22 they're thrown through so many layers of distortion and vocoders that it's hard to really define this music in any meaningful way. Sometimes he sounds like he's still in the studio with Kanye West recording My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as on "33 GOD" and "715 – CREEKS" (which, to be fair, sounds like Bon Iver's song "Woods," which West sampled for "Lost in the World"). In other places he sounds like the leader of a Southern gospel choir ("45"), a robot version of his former folksy self on "29 Strafford APTS," or, as on "8(circle)", a modern day, more grizzly Brunce Hornsby. ("666" also owes a little to one of Horsby's contemporaries, Phil Collins.)
It's safe to say 22 is sonically all over the damn place. But its most consistent theme is the power of Vernon's voice. His love of using his falsetto range used to be the easiest, lowest-hanging-fruit joke about him, which might be why he seems to be counteracting that with the incorporation of electronic sounds. But no matter how much robotic-sounding Messina—a software that creates the real-time harmonies heard throughout—is layered around his melodies, Vernon's voice is still captivating. Often it's at its most affecting when you don't have a clue what he's saying. When the Messina is the only instrument used, as on "715 – CREEKS," the music is deeply emotional. In that way, it's hard blame him for ditching acoustic guitar and whispery high-pitched vocals when the power of technology can make him sound like an angel, a demon, and a human being all at once.
Where 22, A Million comes up short is that if you take away all the crackling, speaker blowouts, and musical build-ups—at just 35 minutes long, the album's most listenable and enjoyable parts end up feeling like 20 or 25 minutes. And the album's closer, "00000 Million," sounds most like the Bon Iver of five years ago. When so much of this album is fresh and viscerally stimulating, its fade into familiarity feels slightly unsatisfying.
Despite teetering on boringness, "00000 Million" features the album's most poignant lyric: "Well it harms it harms me it harms, I'll let it in." It seems that letting in the spotlight is what Vernon fears—which would explain why he lashes out at those who crave it or use it to profit. (And which would make his relationship with Kanye West all the more interesting.) Sure, Vernon might collaborate on a song with James Blake or Francis and the Lights (he'll even do a silly dance!), and his music has no problem demanding your attention. But being an icon or a symbol, or even a face, seem to be things he struggles with. (The only time Vernon's face appears in the promo materials for this album, half of his face appears to be torn off the page, revealing a blue sky and clouds behind it.) Maybe he's just getting used to the idea of not being the cabin-dwelling sad boy people still imagine him to be. We just hope that means there's more of this new, more aggressive, experimental, and surprising Bon Iver to come, because on 22, A Million it's a sound that feels hard to get enough of.