It is a bit of an understatement to say that most people have found 2016 to be a challenging year. Justin Vernon, the main creative force behind the band Bon Iver, is contributing added complexity with Bon Iver’s latest release. The band’s third effort 22 a Million drops on September 30th. This summer Vernon and Co. gave a preview of the release at his Eaux Claires Music Festival. The album is a sonic departure from their prior two releases. Their latest musical offering follows up their 2011 eponymous release which scored both critically and with the public. The album won numerous plaudits, including four Grammy nominations and two Grammy wins. Fans who have enjoyed the introspective isolated feel of both “For Emma, Forever Ago” and “Bon Iver” need to brace themselves for a volte face of sorts as the band looks to stretch beyond the melancholy bittersweet folk they have created in the past.
In some ways the story of Bon Iver’s success is legendary for how serendipitously it occurred. Vernon as the story goes moved back to upstate Wisconsin in the summer of 2007 to recover from Mononucleosis, a broken romantic relationship and the disbanding of his band DeYarmond Edison. While in a kind of self imposed isolation he recorded the debut album over a three month period. He chose the name Bon Iver from the TV show Northern Exposure where the natives greeted each other after the first snow with the French greeting for Good Winter. The recording was originally intended to be a demo to work off of but ended up snowballing into a full release. For Emma, Forever Ago ended up drawing even more attention when it received a very positive review from Pitchfork. After that the band/Vernon selected to sign with the Jagjaguwar label and “For Emma, Forever Ago” placed on a number of elite musical publication’s top album lists.
Another assist for the album came from numerous songs appearing on TV shows. The 2011 sophomore release the eponymous “Bon Iver” continued to garner critical praise and significant popular acclaim. That record was recorded in Vernon’s Fall Creek Wisconsin studio, April Base. The album retained the beautiful melancholy of Emma but was a more sophisticated, layered and dense creation. The band toured extensively backing “Bon Iver” with Vernon going on the road with Sean Carey on drums, vocals and piano, Michael Noyce on baritone guitar, guitars, violin and vocals, and Matthew McCoughan on bass, drums, and vocals. In Nov of 2012 the band announced they would be taking a break and would not appear live until the summer of 2015. “22 a Million” has been labored on over a period of four years with Vernon self producing.
Bon Iver has come a long way from Justin Vernon holed up in a cabin playing only for his own satisfaction. The listening public and fans have come to expect certain sonic stylings from the band. One thing that can be said for “22 a Million” it is a departure from the expected. The first two songs mind bendingly send the listener reeling as both 22 (over soon) and 10 death breast are miles away from where Bon Iver started. They are filled with vocoder vocals and sparse haunting electronica with just of hint of folk. I personally could not decide after the two Yeezus leaning songs if this was the best thing I had heard in a while or musical self indulgence. Also head scratching are the strange titles to the songs which look more like Aphex Twin had a go at the playlist than Justin Vernon. I apologize in advance for the limitations of my keyboard in conveying the song titles. 715 Creeks again is a wonky tech track that contains more vocal modulation. I liked the acapella feel but the vocoder effects left me cold, probably because I like organic Vernon vocals better.
As the album moves along it shakes off some of the electronica and returns to the more familiar. 33 God starts to drop the vocoder and becomes less obscure. There is a strong amount of piano in the song that gives a more recognizable structure to the track. There are still vocal snippets and robotic vocal treatments but they are not as overpowering as in the first three songs. “33 God” is the track most likely to be a fan success like Holocene as its anathematic feel wins out in the end over studio effects. 29# Strafford Apts witnesses a return to the folk vibe that underpins Bon Iver’s prior works; think the stylings off of “Emma…”. The acoustic guitar and piano work together on this sun dappled song. A couple threads of influence jump out at the listener, Van Morrison and Sufjan Stevens’ shapeshifting style on Age of Adz. The song overall proves you can take the boy out of folk but you can not take the folk out of the boy.
666 has a song title that holds a whole lot of preconceived notions. Not surprisingly the devil gets his due on the vocal treatment snippets however they are only one feature. There is beautiful horn work throughout the song and the organic originating instrumentation blends well with experimental flashes. Arpeggiated synths spin as the guitars sparkle, and what is created is cool folk. The track suggests that folk can be transmuted into other genres and be just as arresting. 21 Moon Water is an engaging track and is not your usual Bon Iver creation. It starts mellow and quite serene and then morphs into a cacophonic collision of sounds. The song shows off Vernon’s powerful voice to a great advantage.
8 (Circle) has a long instrumental intro and is soulful and gospel inflected. All of that feeling provides great support to Vernon’s vocals. The song is triumphant, evocative and probably the most straightforward track on the entire recording. The horns are lovely and the song just clicks for me. On the track “_45_” it seems like everything but the kitchen sink was tossed around in the studio. There are horns, halts, jolts, glitches, swoops and dives and a banjo, but the song for all of the studio tricks is moving. Vernon vocally is in full command and that saves the song which is at times a hiccup away from disaster and imploding on itself.
Bon Iver has a tendency to save the best for last on releases and they continue the tradition with 00000 Million. The track could be placed in the same column as “Beth/Rest” off of “Bon Iver”. The selection is bittersweet and piano driven with an under pinning of gospel. It is the strongest song in the collection and plays to all Vernon’s strengths. The track will smooth many a ruffled fan’s feathers.
22 a Million is a challenge to listeners familiar with Bon Iver’s prior works. The band has stepped outside of its pigeonhole and looked to head in another direction. The question is whether the release is simply a change for change sake or something that allows the band to progress. I find myself still torn between if this is groundbreaking or just an uneven effort that didn’t quite deliver. It is certainly different. I personally liked the quiet songs better than the electronic studio trickery tunes but repeated listens might change my mind. There is also the question of if the end result justifies messing with Vernon’s powerful and evocative voice. There is a certain uncompromising bravery that I have to respect as I for one like to see artists get outside their comfort zone. If this album is not outside of the band’s comfort zone, it is certainly outside the comfort zones of most fans of Bon Iver. Time will tell what the outcome of this release will be.