Album review: Bon Iver – 22, A Million

In praise of Justin Vernon’s cryptically-coated latest.

Originally published for The Edge’s album of the year countdown

Justin Vernon‘s storied process behind 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago – rambling from reality into a remote crevice of Wisconsin, setting up residence in a cabin in the woods, waving bears away from stew in nothing but his pants, spending three months putting together a gorgous debut album, etc. – is one that has at many points throughout 2016 looked rather appealing. Moreso in a year that has shown a relentless determination to quash all that is comforting and hopeful, his sincerely warm songwriting provides assurance, and 22, A Million strays from his frostbitten products of seclusion by venturing from normalcy towards experimention in every facet imaginable.

From the outset, 22, A Million casts itself disconcertingly. Each of its 10 tracks is named with a non-chronological number and a string of rarely decipherable characters that are only solely alphanumeric on closer ‘000000 Million,’ which represents the completion of the ‘8 (circle)’ begun by ’22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ that the title references. Despite its foundations in the digital realm – much of the record was crafted on Teenage Engineering’s as-seen-on-Swedish House Mafia-videos OP-1 synthesiser, which Vernon has cited as “the most important instrument that’s come into my life since I first picked up a guitar when I was 12 years old” – this egregiously convoluted facade stretches into its portrayal, lyrical content, and construction of instrumentation.

Across the first seven-and-a-half minutes alone, it took multiple passes over ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ to be certain that its panning jitters and crackles were absolutely not the result of malfunctioning headphones, several glances at ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ to appreciably comprehend his pleas (“Fuckified / Darling, don’t make love / Fight it”), and recall James Blake collaboration ‘Fall Creek Boys Choir’ seeping through the opening of ‘715 – CR∑∑KS,’ a bewildering meeting of Vernon’s vocal and the Messina. (The latter, in the near-certain case that you’re unfamiliar, is a bespoke live elaboration of Francis And The Lights‘ Prismizer tool – the bearer of harmonisation wizardry on The Life Of Pablo, Blonde, Coloring Book, and his own Farewell, Starlite!.)

Somehow, it is amidst this vista of distracting sonic augmentation that Vernon finds room for samples from Nicks to Nutini that help him tell his elemental parables with – to placate the yearns for solace – baffling words fired by delicate techniques. As the record traverses its voyage, hope springs from the shadow of ‘666 ʇ’ with simultaneous choruses (‘8 (circle)’), mesmerising Messina-moulded saxophony on a theme of flame (‘____45_____’), and defeated acceptance that gnosis isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As intricate as inventive and as hollow as whole, 22, A Million may be “just the music-songs [Vernon] made,” yet its entirety captivates by exhibiting strength emerging from ponderous doubt in the way that no contemporary of Vernon ever adequately can.

Out now via Jagjaguwar

Author: Xavier Voigt-Hill

I write words. Sometimes say them on the radio too.