It looks like Eau Claire, Wisconsin’s most famed resident has left his sleepy cabin in the woods for someplace much harsher. Bon Iver’s latest release is a sprawling, cryptic work — familiar in spirit but distorted and transformed by new electronic elements. It’s a refreshing and fully satisfying departure from the album that shot Justin Vernon et al. into the public eye five years ago.
22, A Million is the culmination of the band’s time spent away from the project following 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver. In that time, Vernon won a Grammy; put an indefinite halt on the whole project; continued to collaborate with Kanye West, contributing work to Watch the Throne and Yeezus; and had a hand in one of 2016’s most memorable albums with his production on James Blake’s The Colour in Anything.
Citing creative fatigue as the reason for temporarily retiring Bon Iver, Vernon has been pretty explicit in his distaste for the limelight. With heavily processed vocals, ambiguous lyricism and noise-heavy production, he seems to be clouding the band’s third album in a similar desire for obscurity.
The album starts with a whisper. “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” sounds like a standstill, a brief moment of contemplation before something much more brutal. What’s most impressive about 22, A Million is Vernon’s ability to keep those elements that epitomize Bon Iver: a dual sense of sadness and comfort, a soul, and the ache we feel from not knowing what’s next and what we’ve left behind. For a lack of better words, 22, A Million — like Bon Iver’s past works — sounds like what nostalgia feels like.
It helps, then, that Vernon’s adept at creating rich atmospheres where his melodies and words can prosper, similar in fashion to what Jamie xx recently did with In Colour but a lot messier.
The album rips open with “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ,” a fuzzy, abrasive chant that thumps and shudders with distorted bass. This track, along with “666 ʇ,” recalls the kind of digital instrumentation that Bjork was experimenting with in the late ’90s.
In fact, 22, A Million evokes many of Bon Iver’s contemporaries. There are hints of Kanye and Frank Ocean here, as well as Radiohead’s Kid A.
But, that’s not to say this album isn’t distinctive. The music is difficult. It’s unusual, and Vernon continues to use the kind of connotative language he used in For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver. His particular brand of lyricism has always been contentious. Some take the abstruseness for babble, but Bon Iver’s lyrics are evocative nonetheless.
“715 – CRΣΣKS” is a triumph in this sense. It’s a sparse song comprising Vernon’s signature falsetto, distressed by vocoder. “Goddamn, turn around now, you’re my A team,” he pleads to a lover, or perhaps God. It’s the purity found on career highlights like “Woods” and “Holocene,” magnified by the album’s rough production.
22, A Million is an absolute victory — a piece of work that clearly demonstrate’s Bon Iver’s trajectory from acoustic folk to something wholly unique. Its songs ache and flourish with the help of digital distortions, when usually those effects detach the music from emotion. That kind of interpretation feels essential and prescient in contemporary music.