Bon Iver, the musical collective helmed by Justin Vernon is back and making music again after an extended hiatus. Their third album, 22, A Million is to be released next Friday. Unlike other long-awaited releases this year from artists like Frank Ocean and Kanye West, the whole process of release for 22, A Million has been organic and largely free of drama and distraction.
Just days out from his annual Eaux Claires festival in his beloved Wisconsin hometown, Vernon announced that Bon Iver would be playing their new record in full at the festival, a promise he fulfilled to a rapturous crowd. Hidden in booklets that were handed out at the entrance were lyrics to the final song 00000 Million, which Vernon had the crowd sing from along with him. The entire set can be viewed on YouTube and there have been mixed opinions, but the general consensus seems to be that 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s most ambitious record to date. Vernon held a press conference where he debuted the recorded version of the album, cramming 27 journalists into Eau Claires’ Oxbow Hotel and delving deep into the creation and inspiration of the record.
Three singles have been released thus far and each takes the Bon Iver sound in a different direction. 22 (OVER S∞∞N) is a riptide of emotion, ebbing and flowing over soft guitars and warbling noise, written after a listless trip Vernon took to the Greek Islands. 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ samples a Stevie Knicks outtake of Wild Heart, its harsh and discordant production that rumbles and distorts in your ears reminiscent of some of the darker moments from Yeezus, no small coincidence given Vernon’s close working relationship with Kanye West on that album and on others. 33 “God” blends old elements of Bon Iver, a lilting piano and a folky, faintly-plucked banjo over similar thumping electronic production. The track also samples a Paolo Nutini song in Iron Sky as well as Morning by the late country singer Jim Ed Brown.
Though not officially released in digital format yet, the fourth song to be heard (with >phone quality at least) from the record is 8 (circle), a sprawling and emotive track with pop ballad undertones reminiscent of several tracks from Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore album. Bon Iver played the track on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, enlisting the help of Sydney songstress and Jagjaguwar labelmate Gordi in its performance.
So what else do we know about the album? Saxophones are set to feature heavily. The band enlisted a small troop of them to play behind them at Eaux Claires and we’ve already heard a mournful one cutting like a knife through 22 (OVER S∞∞N). You’ll also hear one of the until now untitled songs from Bon Iver’s 2015 set at Eaux Claires, where he debuted new material but gave scant clues as to whether any of it would be released. That will be 666 ʇ (pronounced “666 upside down cross”), with thunderous percussion underneath production that sounds almost like a dripping tap and a warm and fuzzy electric guitar riff.
As far as the overall sound of the record, Vernon credited a loop they made on a Roland drum machine. Production is sparse and discordant, though faint glimmers of the acoustic folk that rocketed Bon Iver to worldwide renown on For Emma, Forever Ago occasionally pop through, 22, A Million is Bon Iver embracing technology and bending and twisting it across an album, where before it was used to accentuate songs that largely fell within the realm of folk. If you’re looking for a comparison, Woods wouldn’t feel out of place on this record but neither would The Wolves Act 1 & 2.
The album will also be the shortest of Bon Iver’s discography, clocking in at just 34:10. By comparison, For Emma, Forever Ago hit 37:19 and Bon Iver, Bon Iver ran to 39:25. There are 10 tracks total, the longest being the aforementioned 8 (circle) at 5:09 and the shortest being 715 – CRΣΣKS at 2:12. The album begins at a fast pace, the first three tracks all sub-three minutes before spreading out across the latter half.
The themes of the album are somewhat difficult to determine based on song titles and lead singles alone. There certainly seems to be religion involved (666 ʇ, 33 “God”). Where Bon Iver, Bon Iver ground itself in places, 22, A Million opts for numbers, each song’s title reflective of a different number with particular meaning to Vernon (22 for instance was his jersey number playing sports growing up). As Trevor Hagen, a longtime friend of Justin Vernon and one of his former bandmates, put it in a part open letter, part biography on Vernon. “The ten songs of 22, A Million are a collection of sacred moments, love’s torment and salvation, contexts of intense memories, signs that you can pin meaning onto or disregard as coincidence. If Bon Iver, Bon Iver built a habitat rooted in physical spaces, then 22, A Million is the letting go of that attachment to a place”.
22, A Million almost never happened. Vernon found himself burnt out after touring for so long and his creative well seemed to be running dry. As Hagen details: “It all came to a head on an empty Atlantic beach. I bore witness to my best friend crying in my arms, lost in a world of confusion and removal. Justin could barely even talk.” That this record, the culmination of five years of soul-searching, mental anguish and personal breakthroughs, is finally almost here is a small wonder.
Whatever your take on the new direction of this record, whether it excites you for the future, whether it grabs you as Bon Iver’s best effort to date or whether it leaves you bitterly wistful for the sonic simplicity (by comparison) of For Emma, there’s no denying that Justin Vernon is one of the most intriguing, complex and abundantly talented musical minds of the 21st century.
22, A Million is out September 30th via Jagjaguwar
Read more: Bon Iver, A Career In 10 Songs
Image: More Than The Melody