Five years ago, Bon Iver released their self-titled EP to much critical acclaim. The album had stretched the boundaries of folk music, bringing an expansive tenor to a typically stripped down genre, and becoming a modern classic album in the process. Since then, Bon Iver’s career hasn’t gone as smoothly as expected: The band took a three-year hiatus and struggled with break-up rumours. Meanwhile, lead singer Justin Vernon featured on songs with Chief Keef in a slightly confusing career turn. Now, however, they are back with a new 10-song project 22, A Million, sounding as innovative and fresh as ever.
One of the first surprising elements as 22, A Million commences is Vernon’s voice. Hearing the digitally harmonized croon, “Where are you gonna look for confirmation,” about 20 seconds into the album is like having that first bite of a home-cooked meal after living on instant ramen noodles for a semester. It sounds just as it was left, almost crystallized in time from five years ago. The Prismizer that Vernon uses was the bread and butter of the last album, but the group seems to challenge themselves to go beyond the base folk/synth style that was previously used so well. For instance, the track “715 CREEKS” is completely stripped down—it is essentially an acapella song shoved through a Prismizer. The real cherry on the top of the instrumentals are Vernon’s lyrics, which ooze with poetic melancholy in its sincerest form to create a well-rounded project.
Despite running only 10 songs long—short considering the length of other highly anticipated releases this year—22, A Million is by no means minimalist, often combining classic folk songwriting with rich layerings of electronic enhancement. The evolution of Bon Iver’s sound does everything but slap you in the face on the songs “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s t” as the industrial drums tracks, synth harmonies, and Blond-esque chipmunk vocals coalesce in these songs to create a sound that really deviates from their last self-titled album. Thankfully, this new style isn’t beaten to death. The album flows through a variety of different styles, tones, and instrumentation, while being connected through the thread of Vernon’s signature vocals and haunting lyrics. While these varied styles are subtle, they run throughout the album. The dominant use of a saxophone in the song “8 (circle)” and the melody of pure piano chords which carry “00000 Million,” exemplify this extremely interesting musical compilation, which results in a unique sonic experience on each track.
It’s not exactly the flannel jacket and craft beer in rural Wisconsin sound that Bon Iver has perfected in years past, which may be a shame to some, but 22, A Million shows real growth in the group’s style and sound. It was a risk to create a folk album with Yeezus-inspired drums, saxophones, and ridiculous voice modulations, but it appears to have paid off. The end result is a rich listening experience, which provides a lot more depth in ten songs than many other albums this year have managed to do in twenty.
Favourite song: 22 (OVER S∞∞N)
Favourite lyric: Hallucinating Claire / Nor the snowshoe light or the autumns / Threw the meaning out the door / (Now could you be a friend) / There ain't no meaning anymore / (Come and kiss me here again)