22, A Million may at first seem to be a major departure from earlier Bon Iver albums. When heard in the context of For Emma’s bare singer-songwriter and Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s lush orchestral rock, 22, A Million’s rumbling synths and vocoded lyrics seem somewhat contradictory to Bon Iver’s style.
What frontman and composer Justin Vernon has managed to develop, however, is a cohesive album that captures the entirety of his musical career while still remaining rooted in the simplistic folk background that colors Bon Iver’s other works.
“29 #Strafford Apts” plays off of the bare-bones acoustic fingerpicking that skyrocketed “Skinny Love” (and Bon Iver) into the charts back in 2008. “00000 Million,” with its reverb-drenched piano musings, is a musical successor to songs such as “Beth/Rest” from Bon Iver, Bon Iver. “715 – CRΣΣKS” picks up Vernon’s method of building a comprehensive track using a single pitch shifted voice; a method, it’s worth noting, picked up by Kanye West in his frequent collaborations with Justin Vernon. Even the characteristic “warble” of Bon Iver’s music, previously based in elaborate string compositions on the group’s self titled album or doubled vocal tracks on For Emma, has been instilled in 22, A Million through manual tape damage and glitchy loops on songs like “22 (Over S∞∞n).”
What brings this album to life, though, is not what has been retained from the band’s existing music, but what has been brought in from elsewhere. Bon Iver’s five year hiatus has crept into this new album in beautiful ways. “29 #Strafford Apts” takes its opening riff almost directly from “Milkman”- a song released in 2013 by Justin Vernon’s long standing blues-rock outfit The Shouting Matches, bringing some of Vernon’s hometown influences to his now internationally famous primary project. Gayngs, a supergroup including several members of Bon Iver, implants itself into the new album by way of 22, A Million’s slowly grooving R&B influenced beat structures. Another of Vernon’s longstanding projects, Volcano Choir, lends a distinctively twinkling percussive guitar tone to “21 M♢♢N Water” as well as several collaborators during the process of creating the album.
In creating this new album, Vernon has lost the isolated and confused tone for which pre-hiatus Bon Iver is infamous. 22, A Million gladly embraces the outside world, aligning itself with Vernon’s complete discography ad well as some of the greater musical trends seen in many new albums this year. Neo-gospel religious references and samples litter both the lyrics and the symbolism associated with 22, A Million, and can also be found plastered throughout 2016 albums such as Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and many others. Bon Iver also embraces greater emphasis on providing visuals to accompany an album’s story and tone, providing glitchy lyric videos and symbolism-laden album art specific to each new track, playing a similar card as the creators of 2016’s numerous visual albums. (Beyonce’s Lemonade and Frank Ocean’s Endless come to mind.)
22, A Million is a comprehensive work of art. Its fragmented but emotional lyricism prompts the listener to interpret further meaning from both the composition itself and the album’s cryptic visual accompaniment. The album clings to everything that made millions of people fall in love with Bon Iver, while refreshing Justin Vernon’s influence and compositional style to keep the music engaging and relevant.
Though perhaps shocking to those expecting another Bon Iver album recorded by a single man in his cabin, this album marks an optimistic and positive paradigm shift in the work of the band. By displaying every musical influence from his own career, Justin Vernon has created an album that is both brand new and truly unique. Spring may finally be peeking into Bon Iver’s “good winter.”
And the future of the band looks bright.
Written by Geoffrey Gill
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