When the first singles from 22, A Million released online, I was immediately hooked on the next evolution of the critically acclaimed folk outlet, Bon Iver. In the past, the group’s work has always been enjoyable, but never anything that has really stood out as much more than well-written tear-jerker folk. That being said, this album still has many sonic allusions to past works, yet still, manages to keep the music interesting through experimentations with vocoders and other interesting effects that will appear relatively new to a broader audience. 22, A Million is a 34-minute experience of the complete abstract compromising on satisfying melodies, and an interesting account of the conflict that Justin Vernon faces between divinity and humanity.
Starting out, one of the biggest and most notable subjects of this release is the production that went into its creation. By now, most are familiar with Vernon’s tendency to blend electronic vocal changers into his traditional sounding folk tunes, which truly is an iconic move by this point. While that style is still ever present, the band takes it one step forward by infusing muddied synthetic percussion sections like the one featured on 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄, a track that most definitely takes the cake for being one of the heaviest sounding pieces of the ten tracks. Along with that, Vernon’s vocals are masked by a relentless prismizer that exemplifies true passion throughout the tracks’ main chorus. Following that song, the album gives an a-cappella section to Justin for a Kanye-esque autotune moment of raw emotion. Each pause is thought out and well placed, and even a slight breath is altered with a heavy electronic filter that contrasts the lyrics that reflect nature with such a robotic sound. With no other instruments carrying the track, the vocoder provides enough support to emulate a choral effect that carries the song.
For those looking for a more classic sounding Bon Iver with traditional instrumentation, tracks like 29 #Strafford APTS and 00000 Million completely satisfy that desire. With less effort placed into electronic production and more into the analog sound, it really does harken back to the days of For Emma during certain moments, like the vulnerable yodel-falsetto that flows very nicely on the tail end of each chorus. Instruments such as the banjo and saxophone actually hold a great amount of influence during crucial sections of songs and are always used creatively. Specifically towards the end of 21 M◊◊N WATER, where the sax begins to glitch away from the melody at hand and transition beautifully into a Phil Collins like ballad on 8 (circle). The only con that I can truly give out is that “21″ feels like too much filler, especially when it lacks many memorable parts.
When diving into the lyrics on this album, it is important to understand that much of the titles and lyrics are inspired in some way by math or just numbers in general. Justin has a specific importance set aside for each number on the record, and it is somewhat relieving that they all aren’t arbitrary or void of any significance (for an in-depth analysis, check out his New York Times article). Even with that, it can still be a challenge to discern just what is meant in certain verses, let alone an entire song. The best way to go about developing an understanding of this record is by reading into the thought process and mindset of Justin during this recording. A good way to think of it is that if places and location held any weight or meaning on past releases, that entire ideology might as well be out the window. After all, the line “these will just be places to me now” is quite blunt and chilling.
22, A Million is truly a welcome surprise. While I expect no less from such an acclaimed band, it is always nice to see a record that shoots for ambitions far beyond anything that a past release could even hope to attain. Thought, care, and a heavy burden or two were all key elements in the creation of this album, and it triumphs because of it. My honest opinion of this album is a 9/10.