Album cover courtesy of Bon Iver
Review by Jacob Douglas
Bon Iver, the recording project of songwriter and foundational member Justin Vernon, has seen a sonic evolution in ways that rarely appear in mainstream(ish) music. Vernon broke out with his 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago, an album of soulful, stripped down folk. But 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver saw a huge leap instrumentally, brazenly introducing both electronic and cheeseball pop influences to surprisingly stunning effect. Vernon’s newest, eagerly-anticipated work, 22, A Million, takes that sound even further, to the effect of sticking his 2011 album in an ailing CD player and then listening to it underwater. Vernon has stepped up every aspect of his production – the vocals are more distorted, the instruments reverb-ier, the drums even more thunderous. The album also clearly shows the way his recent collaborators – namely Kanye West and James Blake – have influenced his sound. Yet, the glitched, warbling soft rock of 22, A Million still doesn’t really sound like much else out there.
22, A Million opens with “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” one of the most stripped-back songs on the album, luring you into Vernon’s distinctive sonic palette. The track floats along with little else other than Vernon’s pitch-shifted voice, guitar and a repetitious background note, with an instrumental origin (saxophone? horn? voice?) that is – like much of the album – pretty hard to determine. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” roars in afterwards, driven by massive squelchy drums and equally huge rolling fuzzy bass. The song features a technique – one also favored by James Blake – of using chopped-up vocal samples as instruments, which Vermon expertly deploys on a number of tracks. Here, clipped “chipmunk” voices and swooning saxophones fill out the punchy track. Elsewhere, the gorgeous bombast of “33 “GOD”” anchors the first half of the album, and centerpiece überballad “8 (circle)” drops jaws, spectacularly doubling down on both the beauty and the schlock.
Much like on Bon Iver’s previous album, 22, A Million has a very cohesive sound. In fact, many of the songs here have the same constituent pieces – Vernon clearly loves his pounding drums, smooth sax, layered voices, sudden sonic explosions and evolving layers of background beauty. But for an album so drenched in its own distorted experimentation, 22, A Million sounds – in all honesty – also a bit familiar. “666 ʇ” is a bit of a retread of “Minnesota, WI” (from Bon Iver, Bon Iver), with the same buzzing electrical stabs, and “715 - CR∑∑KS” apes the vocoder maze of “Woods” (off of 2009’s Blood Bank EP), only to a more overwrought and overall lesser effect. 22, A Million is sumptuously layered and constructed, but the depth of sound does seem in part an attempt to cover some stagnant songwriting. And Vernon’s lyrics for the most part remain as inscrutable as the nonsensical song titles. As a result, while the album has an air of being emotional-sounding, it is somewhat lacking in actual discernable sentiment. 22, A Million also stretches a bit to meet its fleet 34-minute length: “21 M◊◊N WATER” doesn’t quite pull together into anything interesting and “____45_____” comes off a little slight.
Still, Justin Vernon should be commended for evolving his sound in such a fascinating way, while mostly holding onto his musical core. With 22, A Million, he has crafted a fairly experimental album that is still catchy and immediate, which is no easy task. On the whole, 22, A Million is a beautiful and fascinating listen, but it doesn’t quite pull together into something truly amazing, a feat – one senses – just barely out of the album’s reach.