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Review: Bon Iver Blends Old & New on “22, A Million”

Damn you, Bon Iver. Having had the latest album from the musical project led by Justin Vernon for just under a month, there’s one thing that sticks out of my mind every time I listen to it: Damn you. Damn you for making this album, and damn you for releasing it this time of year. A time when I have multiple albums on my plate, as well as uni assignments stacking up on my desk. Work is constantly on the edge of tipping me into madness, yet it’s impossible to clear it from my schedule. Why? Because of this damned album, that’s why. Bon Iver has managed to create one of the most addictive albums I’ve ever listened to, and it’s slowly killing me.

I’ve been listening to the album nigh on exclusively since I got it, and new aspects still worm their way out from the niches of the sound. Despite its fairly short running time (it clocks in at about 34 minutes), it boasts a hefty amount of weight. Make no mistake, this is a heavy album. Where some bands can dedicate an hour or more to what eventually equates to not much, Bon Iver manages to cram a helluva lot into a small space.

It opens timidly, with the lead single 22 (OVER S∞∞N) spluttering out of your headphones. There’s an interesting stylistic choice at play in this track and this track alone; the sound occasionally cuts out in one ear, giving the track a flawed feel. It’s almost as if it was a long lost song, with time having eaten away at the recording. As much as I can appreciate artistic stylings in music, I’m glad this one ends at the opening track. When listening through headphones, the effect can be jarring, pulling you from the music to make sure your phone isn’t playing up.

10 d E A T h b R E a s T is next up, and it bursts out of the melancholy the first track inspires. The heavily drum led sound is reminiscent of HEALTH, but without the harshness and cynicism that comes with that. Distortion scars the song, with the over-tuned bass juxtaposed perfectly with Vernon’s silky robotic tones. This is like Bon Iver does Yeezus, and I love it.

And then the maximalism stops. 715 – CRΣΣKS comes on and it’s a beautiful serenade of minimal, autotuned and layered vocals. That’s all there is on this song; much like Woods from the Blood Bank EP it’s all vocals. It’s also the shortest piece on the album, coming in at a mere 2:12. Despite its length, 715 – CRΣΣKS is pretty slow, almost an interlude of sorts. Almost.

33 “GOD” was the third and final single off the album, so there’s nothing too new to cover here. Piano and strings meld together to support Vernon’s vocals, which are significantly stripped back. There’s little actual distortion here, which is interesting considering the opening three tracks. It’s this song that reminds me most of Francis And The Lights’ Friends, which featured Bon Iver earlier this year.

And with that, the pace comes to a screeching halt. After the cracking speed that the first four tracks conducted themselves with, 29 #Strafford APTS is almost a straight folk song, more reminiscent of something off of Bon Iver, Bon Iver than any of its predecessors on this album. A lone acoustic guitar weaves its way through Vernon’s vocals, with only minimal interference to clutter the scene. Brief peaks of distortion shine through, and create this duality between what seems to be the old and new Bon Iver.

The softer sounds continue with 666 ʇ. It begins gently, with only a sparse few elements, a soft guitar lick with almost metronomic production. But as the track continues, the sound swells, following Vernon’s emotional ride. This is one of the more passionate songs on the album (not saying any other of the songs lack passion, just that this is so overflowing with it), and it’s hard not to get swept up into the tornado of sound, all thumping drums and brass and Vernon’s unmistakeable falsetto rising and falling.

21 M♢♢N WATER and (8) circle both follow a similar feel, with synths forming a baseline for the smoother sounds of the album to build upon. The first is a little like 715 – CRΣΣKS in its structure, with very little to fill the scene. Again, it’s a shorter piece, which makes the album flow well, if not perfectly. (8) circle is the longest song on the album, and feels like the climax. This is the track where everything culminates into a beautiful eruption of sound. A ballad much like Beth/Rest before it, saxophones are in full swing here with a mix of looped vocals forming the melody. It’s a great, great song, and there’s plenty of substance to keep you coming back to it long after release.

____45_____ isn’t super noteworthy in that it’s similar to the rest of the album. Both short and lighter on the effects, it feels less like a song in its own right and more an intro to 00000 Million, the closer to the album. If the first half of the album was an exercise in a new sound, this is very much a return to form. Not that that’s a bad thing, though. This was the song that was used as a singalong during the initial performances of the album at Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin, and you can see why. Stripped back to a single piano and Vernon’s voice, it’s raw and powerful. It’s the perfect farewell song to the album.

And then it loops. Trust me, it will loop. You can’t listen to this album only once It’s waaaay too good for that. 22, A Million will keep you listening over and over and over again, which is great.

It is interesting to see the path that Bon Iver is taking, especially when you consider what other artists are doing. If I didn’t know any better, I would say that he was somewhat influenced by what Francis And The Lights did on the aforementioned Friends. Vernon’s penchant for experimentation is not exactly new, and 22, A Million feels like another logical step on this musical path. It has a touch of the “classic” Bon Iver (acoustic guitars and stripped back vocal loops), but even these older touching points are glossed in a sheen of newness.

Vernon has always hinted at a more electronic sounding album, and it’s with this latest record that he’s achieved it. It’s a stunning album and I can’t stop listening.

Image: Fashion Industry Broadcast