Ten years removed from his self-exile to his father’s cabin in the Wisconsin wilderness, Justin Vernon and his influential outfit Bon Iver are doing things a little differently.
To understand the revamped sound of Vernon’s work, it’s best to look at where it has been.
The frozen and heartbroken For Emma, Forever Ago came to define a new generation of indie folk, Blood Bank EP was a transition, and Bon Iver, Bon Iver was sprawling perfection.
Now, with their latest effort 22, A Million, Vernon breaks out of his shell and experiments with glitchy, electronic, and jazzy soundscapes to prove that vast beauty can be found in the most broken things.
Vocoder and autotune-laden, Vernon takes a few pages out of his good friend Kanye West’s book of tricks in a number of ways throughout this astonishing new full-length album.
At first, the tracks on this new LP may feel far gone from the indie folk warmth of prior projects. But after giving it a deeper listen, it’s clear that 22, A Million is merely a sonic shift.
The opening track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” features Vernon’s trademark falsetto laced over a West-esque chipmunk gospel sample, while the lyrics are vaguely reminiscent of For Emma’s heartbreak.
“715 – CRΣΣKS” features some arresting acapella in the same vein as Blood Bank’s “Woods.”
Some tracks are sharper turns than others, like “10 d E A T h b R E a s T”’s dark and primal sounds.
The gobsmacking beauty of “29 #STRAFFORD APTS” highlights the middle of the album. A straightforward instrumental with layered guitars, a faint piano, and horns float behind stunning songwriting and vocals from Vernon and drummer S. Carey, who is an established solo folk artist of his own.
“Sure as any living dream/It’s not all then what it seems/And the whole thing’s hauled away,” Vernon sings, lamenting the emptiness and fragility of fame, as he recovered from a deep depression prior to the album’s recording.
The song’s crescendo is beautifully pitched up and garbled at the same time, before a standout line about burying one’s “alimony butterflies” breaks out and carries the song to a close.
The second half of the project is Vernon at his most personal, detailing his depression, religion, and relationships before the album draws to a close with a triumphant gospel-influenced ballad “00000 Million.”
“If it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in,” Vernon sings on the closer, fully self aware.
Oftentimes, fans lust for their favourite artists to never change or break a winning formula. But it’s important to remember that when things get too comfortable, an artist should switch things up.
If Bon Iver’s last album was leaving the cabin, this project is the maturation and growing process. No longer trapped in the woods, Vernon’s forgotten Emma and is finally working on himself—and as fans, we’re reaping the rewards.