Take off, if you can, those heavy winter jackets, those well-worn boots and that general sense of brooding, melancholy listlessness which define the latter months of the year. Bon Iver, once an impressionistic staple of that season, certainly has.
The pet project of Justin Vernon, a native of Wisconsin (and, accordingly, the general sadness which accompanies a state subdued by a winter which stretches its arms too far), Bon Iver once defined that particular winter mood. Their very name makes reference to it, an alteration of the French phrase “bon hiver,” meaning “good winter.” Though the band has never been one to subject itself to an exact musical style, moving from the stripped-down arrangements of their debut For Emma, Forever Ago to a fuller, more orchestral sound on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, their music has occupied a clear space. Vernon himself acknowledged this at a recent press conference in his home town of Eau Claire: “… (T)he old records are of this kind of sad nature — I was healing myself through that stuff. Being sad about something is okay. And then wallowing in it, circling though the same cycles emotionally just feels boring.” These are not the words of status quo.
Neither is the band’s first album in nearly five years, 22, A Million. If the immediacy of change doesn’t hit you so clearly on opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” the electric field of “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” will make it abundantly clear. This is the sound of iconoclasm, of a desperate need to break what once was and rearrange the pieces. That contravention is everywhere on 22, A Million. Most obvious is the destruction of the song title: names once quaint and grounded (“Woods,” “Calgary,” “Flume”) have become bombastic and confounding (“29 #Strafford APTS,” “715 – CR∑∑KS”).
But beyond the superficial, like the equally chaotic album cover, there is, too, a clear departure from the past here lyrically. Vernon’s lyrics have become defined by their vague mystique, but they nonetheless always paint cerebral scenes. Previous landscapes have mirrored their song titles, whispering about the interior and the calm, as in “Holocene,” in which he coos, “Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright.” Here, he turns his face more outward, describing his love in distance — “Said I would have walked across any thousand lands” — and hinting at a more restless being, including a distorted vocal of Stevie Nicks’s “Wild Heart.”
There will be an easy comparison made between 22, A Million and Radiohead’s experimental album Kid A. In many respects there is a strong line between the two: both employ significant vocal distortion, a departure from once was and a sense of fragmentation. But 22, A Million, while a break, doesn’t feel quite so violent in its aspirations. There is a stronger continuation of the past on this album than Kid A allows. With enough listens, the dissonance of the electronic production calmed, 22, A Million will sound closer to what was than the veneer it first gives off.
Take “715 – CR∑∑KS,” which has no instrumental and leaves just the auto-tuned vocals of Vernon to stand on their own. If you squint, you can see For Emma, Forever Ago in its empty arrangement. And the powerful lead single “33 “GOD”” recalls the quiet grandiosity of Bon Iver, Bon Iver opener “Perth.” Breaking and picking up the pieces, Vernon keeps certain gems fully intact.
The best moments of 22, A Million are when Bon Iver can combine the bluster of their new instruments with the quiet force they previously perfected. “29 #Strafford APT” is a clear product of this. For much of the track, one can forget that anthemic songs like “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” introduced the album. It starts with confident whispers and sparse instruments; a distant pulse of jazz enters the background every so often, accompanied by a meandering acoustic guitar so defining of the band. The true magic here, though, is the faltering conclusion, when the vocals are artificially cut and distorted as they ascend the scale. It’s a disarming moment of clarity, where the electronic and the stripped-away balance one another lightly, perfectly.
Conversely, the most in-your-face electronic distortion can be some of the most fascinating here. The transition between “21 M◊◊N WATER” and “8 (Circle)” finds a wandering saxophone solo turn into a frenzied yelp before landing easily at the introduction of “8 (Circle)” ’s soft synths. It recalls in execution Frank Ocean’s recent foray into the strange: the intro of Blonde’s “Pretty Sweet.” Both are moments of discord which jar the listener, realigning them again with the peaceful directly afterwards.
Given the blatantly separate worlds conjured on each of the band’s three LP ventures, determining their relative quality to one another is bound to be a difficult endeavor. For Emma, Forever Ago is a far more emotionally cathartic album than what you’ll find here, but it lacked the kind of skilled arrangements which found themselves on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The inventiveness of this album is unmatched in their discography — even the words here are new (“Paramind,” or the unforgettable “Fuckified”). Vernon has discussed wanting to create new instruments and sounds, and that’s certainly accomplished on 22, A Million.
But what seems to be lacking (and maybe just ever so slightly) is the ethereal quality which settles after a listen to the band’s self-titled masterpiece. However bombastic, this release still feels less impactful and resonant than that one. The sheer beauty of that landscape, constant and consuming, isn’t so here. Perhaps it’s on account of that inventiveness, slightly shading the heart to which Bon Iver are so adept at speaking. Regardless, it’s clear that Bon Iver are still at the forefront of a concept. No matter how static and stretched they make it, the catharsis of Vernon’s pitch, the quiet pulse of the drums and the fleeting instrumentals still strike with an inner force few other bands can even dream of.