If it seemed incongruous that Justin Vernon was rolling with Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010 and Yeezus in 2013, Vernon’s new LP as Bon Iver shows that the indie-folk singer and megastar rapper are, in many ways, kindred spirits.
They are explorers, musical experimenters pushing against boundaries in pursuit of the truest possible artistic self-expression, with a single-minded dedication that can border on naiveté. Maybe that explains why they lost themselves in the disorienting swirl of fame, or hype, or whatever it is that works to unmoor people who reach a certain stature in popular culture. Either way, West and Vernon have each found themselves adrift, and each sought to make sense of his alienation through music. But where West has attempted to fight his way through the disaffection with a flurry of activity, Vernon stepped away, largely shutting down his musical persona after 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver and the accompanying tour.
After a few years of introspection (along with producing albums for other artists and starting the Eaux Claires Music Festival), Vernon has come back to Bon Iver. If he’s not exactly refreshed, it’s clear on 22, A Million that he feels a renewed urgency to create. There’s certainly a sense of urgency here, and also sublime moments on songs that overlay beauty with turbulence in a way that suggests an anguished soul reaching for solace amid turmoil.
The beauty comes in layers of ethereal vocals, an echo of Bon Iver’s earlier work. But 22, A Million is neither the spare whisper-folk of For Emma, Forever Ago, nor the gauzy soft-rock of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. These 10 tunes have sharper edges, with touches of abrasion that extend to the song titles: each contains a number, and many replace letters with symbols that sometimes look as though Vernon found them scrolling through Wingdings. Opener “22 (OVER S??N)” is an immediate indication that things are different here, with cut-and-paste pastiches of instruments, and vocals pitched to sound like samples. There’s a tumble of slashing, overdriven rhythm on “10dEAThbREasT??,” a wavering effects-treated arrangement on “____45_____” and vocals thick with Kanye-esque AutoTune on “715-CR??KS,” which ends so abruptly it sounds like Vernon was interrupted in the studio. There are moments when the songs crackle or cut out, as though interrupted by static, and electronic manipulation expands a simple arrangement of guitar and piano on “29 #Strafford APTS” into a subtly daring avant-garde symphony.
With song titles written in code, inscrutable lyrics and eclectic instrumentation, 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s most enigmatic album so far. Still, like the previous two, it is in some far-reaching way about a coming to terms. With For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon was essentially accepting adulthood, with all its attendant heartache and ambiguity. Bon Iver, Bon Iver searched for a sense of place as the band outgrew the familiar ones where it had once fit. Here, Vernon sounds as though he is rediscovering—or maybe recreating—his own identity in the context of what Bon Iver has become, sifting through the dysfunction, demands and general weirdness of a public life in search of what is real and tangible, at least to himself. The gentle, almost elegiac tone of closing song “00000 Million” suggests that maybe he has found an equilibrium, or, at the very least, he hasn’t given up on trying.