Bon Iver reinvents himself again with the masterful ’22, A Million’ (stream it)
Justin Vernon is almost never not up to something, but albums under his most-loved project Bon Iver are -- relatively speaking -- few and far between. The second Bon Iver album came four years after the first, and now five years after that album we get the third. It's always worth the wait though, as each album is a massive reinvention and a brilliant piece of work. Given Justin's collaborative relationships with artists like James Blake and Kanye West, it felt like it was only a matter of time before he went full-on electronic art pop for most of an album, and 22, A Million is that album. It does have a little acoustic guitar on it, but hints of Bon Iver's early music only really come through in the way Justin writes songs. His unique approach to melody is rarely different here than on the last two records. So even if you're the kind of Bon Iver fan who prefers guitar-based music to electronic, 22, A Million shouldn't be too alienating.
Again, Justin's got a relationship with James Blake and Kanye West, and like both of those guys (and Beyonce and Rihanna and Chance the Rapper and Radiohead and Frank Ocean and Drake), Bon Iver made a High Profile Album in 2016. (It also, in one way or another, has musical similarities to all of those albums.) If you pay too much attention, it's easy to get tired of albums like these. They're usually released in some kind of elaborate, or at least unconventional, way. They're usually either considered an instant classic or an instant flop. 22, A Million is not immune to the elaborate album rollout -- after teasing its existence, Bon Iver put out an official announcement with two songs and hours later they performed the entire album live. In the days before its release, he held weird listening parties worldwide. It came with odd song titles like "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄," interviews where Justin explained the significance of the number 22, and it got people hunting for hidden messages. When Justin opens the album with the lyric "It might be over soon," it's tempting to read that as a foreshadow that this is the last Bon Iver album. If all of this stuff does wear you out, the bright side is knowing that you can tune it all out when you listen to the record. You don't really need any context to appreciate how gorgeous these songs are; context may just take away from that. And unlike those James Blake and Frank Ocean and Drake albums, 22, A Million is a melancholic male-fronted pop album that actually whips by pretty quickly. It can be a chore to think about the dichotomy between the numbers 22 and one million, but it's not a chore to listen to this album.
It's also full of so many different sounds. After the gentle opener "22 (OVER S∞∞N)," which kind of sounds more like James Blake's early Bon Iver-inspired material than any previously-existing actual Bon Iver material, he brings in "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄," which backs his trademark falsetto harmonies with echoes of industrial and glitch. A song like that one is highly percussive, but then he'll have a song with no percussion at all, like "715 - CR∑∑KS," which sounds like the sonic sequel to Bon Iver's insanely influential "Woods." While almost every song is miles away from For Emma, Forever Ago, "29 #Strafford APTS" reminds me more of For Emma than anything on the last album did. The song may be more of a studio production than Bon Iver's earlier material, but it has the same quietness, like it's hiding from the world. The complex layered instrumentation of the second album shows up again on 22, A Million too, even on the songs that feel heaviest on electronics, like "33 'God'." Just like the album begins on a gentle note, it ends on one too. "00000 Million" is a piano ballad with little more than Justin's voice, his keys, and some atmospheric effects that makes for an excellent comedown from the album's whacky sounds.
For Emma, Forever Ago is the kind of record people form close personal attachments to, and for that reason, most people I talk to call it their favorite. Bon Iver, Bon Iver was a more overwhelming album, the kind where the artist towers over you as a giant, rather than feeling relatable. (Fittingly because Justin Vernon himself was a star at this point.) 22, A Million is neither of those things. It's smaller and more antisocial than Bon Iver, Bon Iver, but too much of a high-art experiment to be as personable as For Emma. It's probably already getting called his Kid A, but it's more like Sufjan Stevens' The Age of Adz, an album where a sappy, folky indie guy proved he can't be pigeonholed.
The album is out now on Jagjaguwar. Listen to it, and watch the just-released lyric videos for "715 - CR∑∑KS" and "29 #Strafford APTS":