After the release of Bon Iver’s self-titled 2011 album, Justin Vernon found himself in an uncomfortable place: the spotlight. After winning a best new artist Grammy and collaborating with high-profile artists, he was tasked with creating his next album, 22, A Million.
He responded to this sudden fame by slowly fading into the mist — unsurprising given that he first found fame in 2007 after releasing For Emma, Forever Ago, an album of soul-crushing folk tunes he created in a wood cabin in the forests of Wisconsin after a bad breakup.
With his long-awaited third album, it appears Vernon has left his warm acoustic roots in the woods. Instead, 22, A Million showcases blown-out drums, synths, samples, beats and saxophones. Vernon’s vocals have always been slightly pitched up or down on previous records, but his crooning voice is heavily manipulated and layered on this project thanks to devices created by Vernon’s band mates.
Just as Sufjan Stevens followed up his folksy and critically acclaimed albums Michigan and Illinois with the heavily electronic The Age of Adz, Vernon ditches his guitar and dives headfirst into the more experimental realms of music. The outcome shows why Vernon is one of the most innovative and creative musicians today.
While the band broadens their sound sonically, thematically they stay true to their roots, focusing on existential purpose, religion, love and heartbreak.
“22 (OVER S∞∞N),” the album’s opening track, has some familiar Bon Iver elements: saxophones and a prominent Vernon falsetto singing, “It might be over soon.” But the album quickly takes a more heavy electronic turn on “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” where we hear growling synths, blown-out drums and impressionistic lyrics such as, “Fever rest, I cut you in, deafening.”
“715 – CRΣΣKS” opens like the beginning of his 2011 collaborative track with James Blake, “Fall Creek Boys Choir,” and features no instrumentation. The lyrics are allusive and although they might not have definitive meaning, they carry bountiful emotion in lines like, “Oh then how we gonna cry? Cause it once might not mean something.” Its stark auto-tuned vocals sound like a re-imagination of a track off Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreaks.
The theme of numerology becomes more evident on “33 “GOD”” a track that is 3 minutes and 33 seconds long and was released as a single 33 days prior to the album’s release. This is one of the more anthemic tracks on the project and the theme of questioning religion is prominent as Vernon closes the track by asking, “Why are you so far from saving me?”
Listeners who are intimidated by the more electronic and glitchy opening tracks will find solace in the second half the album. It’s mellower overall and songs like “8 (circle)” and “____45_____” have less vocal distortion and are reminiscent of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, which now seems like the middle ground that bridges For Emma, Forever Ago and 22, A Million.
There are few missteps to be found on this LP, which pushes Vernon’s sound forward while still showcasing his beautiful lyricism. The main shortcoming of this project is that the tracks bleed together at times, leading to a somewhat claustrophobic listening experience and some of the preludes and outros are a little long-winded and lethargic.
Vernon admits that his sudden fame might have negatively impacted him on the closing track “00000 Million,” where he sings, “It harms me, it harms me, it harms me,” but instead of returning to the woods never to return, Vernon found a way to evolve as an artist without selling out.