It’s been five years since we’ve last heard from Bon Iver, a band that, since its inception, has been undergoing consistent reinvention. Since the evocative, quietly experimental folk of “For Emma, Forever Ago” — Bon Iver’s debut LP — Justin Vernon has become one of the biggest stars in the indie world. Expectations for his sophomore album were lofty and specific, and he managed to exceed them in surprising ways with 2011’s “Bon Iver.” Likewise, the expectations for his new record “22, A Million” were crushingly high. After “For Emma,” Vernon was pegged as an indie folk darling. With the fuller chamber pop of “Bon Iver,” Vernon took home a Grammy, and all eyes have been on him ever since. Vernon’s newest album “22, A Million” is simultaneously a shocking change in direction and a natural continuation of his creative arc thus far — a cryptic and emotional existential crisis of a record.
Since “For Emma,” Bon Iver has been trying to escape the origin story that birthed it: Artist at the end of relationship retreats to cabin in Wisconsin with guitar and records one of the best indie folk records of the decade. The image has only been romanticized over the years, but Vernon has always been more than a folk artist — which he proved on his sophomore LP and through his subsequent side projects and collaborations. But in the five-year gap between “Bon Iver” and “22,” a multitude of questions arose concerning Vernon as an artist. For “Bon Iver” to continue in a world where music is constantly changing, where music and technology shape each other in powerful ways, Justin Vernon would have to (as Radiohead did in the late ’90s) reexamine what it means to make music in the modern day. “22” does this and does it well.
“22” is not without precedent, but there’s no denying that it marks a giant leap forward in Bon Iver’s sound. Vernon largely eschews traditional song structures built around verses and choruses in favor of songs that sound like sketches or experiments. The opening track, “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” builds on a single, modulated vocal loop. There is a verse of sorts, the stirring refrain of “It might be over soon,” and a simple, striking saxophone solo before the song gives way to “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠,” which might be the most strikingly different song on the album for Bon Iver listeners with its crunchy beat. Other tracks such as “715 – CRΣΣKS” are made up only of modulated, layered vocals that build upon each other. These songs are often skeletal and impressionistic in nature, leaving behind more questions than they answer. “22, A Million,” unlike Bon Iver’s previous work, feels uncertain, as if it’s trying to find its own place in the world.
Although “22, A Million” is markedly different from Bon Iver’s previous LPs, it is not entirely removed from previous work. Fans of Justin Vernon’s music can hear the roots of songs like “715 – CRΣΣKS” in the harmonies of “Woods” (off Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” EP), another song made up of manipulated vocals layered on top of each other, building to powerful effect. Kanye West sampled “Woods” on the monumental “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” collaborating with Bon Iver again on 2013’s “Yeezus.” West’s influence on Bon Iver (particularly during the “Yeezus” period) is most apparent in the crunchy opening beat of “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠,” but the influence of West’s production style is apparent throughout. Additionally, we see the beginnings of the new sound of “22, a Million” in Volcano Choir’s (Vernon’s side project with Collections of Colonies of Bees) 2013 album “Repave.” Songs like “Byegone” and “Comrade” were bigger than any of Bon Iver’s releases at that point. Now, the highs of “22” at times reach this level of intensity.
Though “22” at first feels strikingly different from previous work, Justin Vernon has been experimenting with similar sounds throughout his career. The opening of standout track “33 ‘GOD’” sounds like it could be at home alongside “Michicant” from Bon Iver’s self-titled record. (Though, as it builds and S. Carey’s clashing drums come in, there is a clear divergence.) Likewise, “29 #Strafford APTS” is probably the closest thing to “For Emma” we’ve heard in awhile. It’s almost a folk song, but the modulated voice singing “Canonize, canonize” disrupts the illusion, reminding listeners that “For Emma” was indeed forever ago.
The burden of expectations placed on Bon Iver’s shoulders since the release of “For Emma” is one of the primary reasons for the crisis of identity that “22” documents. It explains those weird, semi-pronounceable song titles in the track listing as well as the flouting of traditional song structures. Bon Iver had to undergo reinvention in order to be free. “22,” which builds on an already stunning career, further proves that Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon will not be limited by genre, expectations or tradition in the pursuit of his art.
Contact Tyler Dunston at tdunston ‘at’ stanford.edu.