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Bon Iver’s third album is a success, makes artistic transition


“It might be over soon.” These are the words that we hear most prominently as Justin Vernon, the lead singer and mastermind behind Bon Iver, sets the tone for the record we are about to hear.

22, A Million – Bon Iver’s third – is a shocking album. Of course, there’s the insane track list, where every song title contains a number and usually some sort of symbol.

But it’s easy to get past song titles; what isn’t easy is digesting a complete artistic transformation, which is exactly what Bon Iver have provided with 22, A Million.

The mythologization of Vernon has been proliferated more times than he’d like to hear. The story goes that a heartbroken, mononucleosis-infected Vernon secluded himself in his family’s cabin in rural Wisconsin and wrote his debut, “For Emma, Forever Ago”. After news of this pretty, poignant, heartbreaking album spread throughout the underground scene, Vernon was featured on Kanye West’s seminal My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Soon after, Bon Iver released its self-titled second album, which was the most critically acclaimed album of that year. Its lush instrumentation and inclination to experiment was such a perfectly logical progression from the relatively simple acoustic ballads of For Emma.

Now, a Bon Iver album is a genuine event in the underground scene, and that’s why it’s so enthralling to see Vernon experiment on his newest effort.

22, A Million is an exploration of the relationship between organic and synthetic,  natural and man-made, real and fake.

Moments of pure musical bliss are contrasted with harsh mixing and distorted vocals. Vernon explores his relationships with everything in his life; despite the instrumental grandeur, 22, A Million is Vernon’s most personal album yet.

“33 ‘GOD’” has significance in its title; of course, there’s the word “God”, but in addition, Jesus was likely 33 years old when he died. When he was young, for God, Vernon says he “would have walked across any thousand lands.”

But now, decades later, he comes to an epiphany: “I didn’t need you that night / not gonna need you anytime … I better fold my clothes!” He’s rejecting religion, and bracing himself for a future without that higher power that he’s always known.

“715 – CR∑∑KS” is one of the most musically distinct songs on this record, for one big reason: there’s no instrumentation. Instead, the song evokes vocoder pioneer Imogen Heap, with a half-dozen tracks of Vernon’s vocals layered over one another.

The area code of northern Wisconsin just so happens to be 715, and Vernon wonders aloud why someone – his friends, his love, his god – couldn’t be there for him: “I have been left in the reeds,” just like Moses was in the book of Exodus.

Bon Iver’s music has always been more impressionistic than literal, and 22, A Million is no different. Vernon’s penchant for made-up or obscure words (“astuary,” “unorphaned,” “gnosis”) sets more of a tone than providing physical context. When he sings “I’m an Astuary king” at the climax of the stunning “8 (circle),” it’s a huge emotional release, regardless of what the words mean.

Bon Iver’s intentional obscurity and density of the lyrics means that the listener relies on the music itself more for aesthetic and feeling. That’s where the music comes in.

Vernon has been candid about his struggles with fame, and that’s understandable — especially when his every last move is magnified by the independent music community.

No doubt the rise of social media and universal connectivity has a lot to do with that, and that’s why all of this organic beauty is intercut with painful songs like “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”, the one bad track on the entire album.

The harsh, stuttering, synthetic drums are hard on the ears, but it’s how I imagine Vernon must feel whenever he opens his mouth or hints at new music.

Every once in a while, I call my sister on FaceTime to catch up on how she’s doing back home.

We usually end up talking for over an hour. And even though the screen may vary in quality and our voices may distort through the internet connection, the love and warmth is still there. 22, A Million’s best (and most conventional) song, “29 #Strafford APTS”, is entirely acoustic up until the final chorus.

Vernon’s modulated voice cuts out: he sang with too much volume and passion, but just like with my sister and I, the emotion is still there.

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