Bon Iver – aka Justin Vernon – delivers an ambitious, compelling, and enigmatic third studio effort with ’22, A Million.’
Five years is an eternity in ever-changing music industry. Five years is the length of time that alternative singer/songwriter Justin Vernon, better known as Bon Iver has been absent from the scene. Bon Iver won two Grammys back in 2011 for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music album (Bon Iver). Furthermore, he established himself as a Kanye West favorite, providing superb contributions to both My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) and Yeezus (2013).
Bon Iver returns triumphantly in 2016 with 22, A Million, an eclectic album that sounds like nothing else released in 2016. Incorporating electronic cues and acoustic cues alike, 22, A Million is an intriguing listen. While its lyrics can be challenging – drenched in spirituality, numerology, and the most accessible, romance – 22, A Million makes listeners think.
“22 (OVER S∞∞N)” opens 22, A Million enigmatically and alluringly. Vernon’s vocals are hauntingly radiant, over production comprised of sample (Mahalia Jackson), guitar, and saxophone among other instruments.
“10 dEAThbREasT⚄⚄” features epic production, particularly the distorted, hard beat. Vernon sounds as if he’s shouting, particularly as the intensity picks up towards the end. His vocals are heavily processed, but that’s clearly the desired effect – it works without a hitch.
Vernon’s effects-drenched vocals dominate “715 – CR∑∑KS,” where his voice is the centerpiece. Even given the distortion with the vocoder, there’s a clear beauty – undeniable passion. He references love prominently, justifying his passion. He concludes:
“Turn around now, you’re my A-Team / god damn, turn around now / you’re my A-Team.”
Promo single “33 “GOD”” is stunning, if bizarre to the inexperienced Bon Iver ear. Ultimately, it is well produced, ambitious, and captivating. Keeping in step with the themes of 22, A Million, “33 “GOD”” dabbles in romance and spirituality. On the romance front, Vernon is searching for a hook-up (or relationship) that ultimately goes awry:
“I didn’t need you that night / not gonna need you anytime / was gonna take it as it goes / I could go forward in the light / well I better fold my clothes”
In regards to spirituality, he seems skeptical, considering he turns it into a sexual metaphor:
“We find God and religions, too / staying at the Ace Hotel.”
“29 #Strafford APTS” has more acoustic features compared to the rest of 22, A Million. Even so, vocally, Vernon still uses effects. To an extent, this represents more of the expected sound from Bon Iver – lush, somewhat indulgent, and thoughtful. Here, the listener is forced to listen analytically, while experiencing chills – a brilliant balancing act.
“666 ʇ” seems to put religion and skepticism at the forefront. The first line makes reference to 666, the number of the beast, with Vernon almost questioning the proper reaction:
“Sixes hang in the door / what kind of shit to ignore / baby I’ve cut the cloth.”
The latter part of the lyric is Biblical, yet in this context, it seems Bon Iver is shunning religion itself. Later, he remains conflicted:
“I’m still standing in / I’m still standing in your need of prayer / the need of prayer.”
“21 M◊◊N WATER” embraces numerology, a concept used throughout 22, A Million as a whole. This is obvious from the jump, as Vernon sings:
“The math ahead / the math behind it / it’s moon water.”
A further “cut of the cloth,” numerology isn’t associated with Christianity in the least. It is numbers based, hence why the reference to math signifies its use here. Though lyrically limited, “21 M◊◊N WATER” gives the album another intriguing ‘number’.
“8 (circle)” supersedes it, giving 22, A Million one of its warmest and most epic moments. The lengthiest song clocking in over five minutes, it’s well worth it. Vocally, “8 (circle)” is arguably Vernon’s tour de force. Musically, the saxophones – Colin Stetson, Michael Lewis, and Sad Sax of Shit – in particular, provide a lift.
Penultimate record “____45_____” is as stunning as everything else. Saxophones, banjo, and superb vocals give it its shine, not to mention the mystical element. “00000 Million” concludes more restrained, almost hymn-like. This vibe is fulfilled thanks to the upright piano sound, often associated with an old club or church.
All in all, 22, A Million is a brilliant album. Bon Iver outdoes himself on this electro-acoustic alternative amalgam. Vernon manages to make the listener think analytically, yet also embrace genuine emotions. A lyrically ambitious LP, after examining the lyrics and themes, more of the magic of 22, A Million unveils itself.
Gems: “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” “10 dEAThbREasT⚄⚄,” “33 “GOD”” & “8 (circle)
Bon Iver • 22, A Million • Jagjaguwar • Release: 9.30.16
Photo Credit: Jagjaguwar
Publishing Note: This album review was originally published on The Musical Hype as Bon Iver Compels on Third Album, ’22, A Million’ on October 3, 2016.