Bon Iver’s ’22, A Million’ is delightfully experimental

Bon Iver performed in Stockholm on Nov. 4, 2011. (Daniel Jordahl via Flickr)

Back when ending TV episodes with dramatic music montages was not considered cliché and lazy, mainstream culture was all about exploiting indie music. Millions of college students across the world depended on music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas as their guru — the obscure band or the quirky singer-songwriter they “discovered” could only get approval from others if it was featured in “Grey’s Anatomy” (2004-present) or “Gossip Girl” (2007-2012). This period of indie music — which consisted of a bunch of sub-genres that did not make any sense (baroque pop? anti-folk?) – also marked the dreadful beginnings of the Starbucks-hipster culture.

In 2007, Bon Iver came along and started a quiet revolution with his debut “For Emma, Forever Ago” (2007). Bon Iver’s debut gallantly saved a genre that was on the verge of death, as it fit the criteria of a “Grey’s Anatomy”-like hit while also sounding fresh and exciting. “For Emma, Forever Ago” was an extraordinary indie album with a guitar-centric sound and poetic, tender lyrics — “Can’t you find a clue / When your eyes are all painted Sinatra blue” — that were never deemed too sentimental. Lead singer Justin Vernon showed vulnerability not only through his songwriting skills but also through his voice. His murmurs, howls and occasional use of auto-tune defied indie music conventions at the time.

Nine years later, Bon Iver is stirring up the indie scene once again with “22, A Million,” which was released on Sept. 30. While the progression in Bon Iver’s sound is hardly surprising, fans of the band know that Bon Iver has been experimenting with a more electronic sound lately, as evidenced by recent collaborations with Kanye West (“Hold my Liquor” (2013)), James Blake (“I Need A Forest Fire” (2016)) and Francis and the Lights (“Friends” (2016)). These collaborations set the tone of “22, A Million,” which is heavily processed and daringly experimental yet also strangely personal.

Consisting of 10 tracks, “22, A Million” is not a very lengthy album, keeping up with the tradition of Bon Iver’s previous albums. All song titles have numbers in them, and they are written in weird combinations of upper and lower case letters as well as symbols and even emojis. The album opens with “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” a track that features a sample of Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over (Live)” and a delightful, Destroyer-esque saxophone solo. The lyrics of “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” tell of some sort of spiritual awakening, which is a concept investigated throughout the album. The song skillfully blends Bon Iver’s signature acoustic sound with a more experimental and electronic one. It is clear why Bon Iver chose the track to be a promotional single, as it perfectly demonstrates the new direction the band is taking.

The second track, titled “10 Death Breast,” is more synth heavy, and Vernon’s voice is unrecognizable with processors. This version of the song is noticeably more tense and louder than the extended version released last month, with swifter beats and less structure.

At times, synthesizers make it difficult to understand Vernon, and his voice deliberately cracks in some of the songs. This is most evident in “29 #Strafford APTS,” which sounds more like an American Idol audition gone wrong when Vernon cries paramind” and “canonize” in the chorus. Yet, his peculiar, detuned hollers convey the same admirable vulnerability Vernon demonstrated in “For Emma, Forever Ago.” Even with heavy uses of synthesizers and samples, Vernon is able to sound poignant and honest.

The highlight of the album is the five-minute track “8 (circle).” Reminiscent of Chet Faker’s “To Me” (2014), the song is arranged in a convoluted yet effective way, featuring strong vocals by Vernon, refreshing brass sections and a quiet synth beat.

“00000 Million” closes the album on a bitter note. Musically, the piano-centric track is the most acoustic offering on the album. A harrowing track overall, “00000 Million” ends with Vernon singing, “Cause the days have no numbers / Well it harms it harms me it harms, I’ll let it in.”

“22, A Million” is another hit for Bon Iver. Refreshingly original yet not too experimental as to repel fans, the album will surely satisfy music lovers of all kinds and shape the future of indie music.


4.5 stars