Built off the strong foundation of his debut and sophomore releases, Justin Vernon has become one of the most recognisable vocalists in the indie-folk scene.
His sound is tinkered slightly with every new release he puts out, whilst always remaining identifiable and forever popular amongst his dedicated following (see Melbourne listening “party”).
His collaborations are obscure but somehow unsurprising, joining forces with the likes of Kanye West and James Blake. Most recently, he featured heavily on the latter’s latest album on the chilling and melancholic chant “I Need A Forest Fire”.
It felt like a hint as to what Vernon would be putting forth on his next release.
With that, five years after his Bon Iver, Bon Iver sophomore release, 22, A Million is without doubt Vernon’s most experimental collection to date.
From the obscure sketches on the album artwork to the somewhat bizarre song titles that are more reminiscent of an Aphex Twin track list, it’s clear that Vernon has taken a calculated step sideways.
Nevertheless, his recognisable melodies and vocal delivery remain across the album. The opening track titled ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, a sombre beginning flaunting gorgeously warped vocal samples and phrases, shows Vernon at his creative best.
Following on from this, however, is the confusing ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’, a track beginning with a grimy synthesised drumbeat that appears more distracting than providing any contribution to the heavily autotuned and altered melodies behind it.
Interestingly enough, the album continues to play out with unnecessary inconsistencies and seemingly half-finished ideas riddled in between moments of deft brilliance.
This is again displayed by the third track titled ‘715 - CR∑∑KS,’ a two minute over-saturated a capella performance from Vernon that serves as nothing more than an underwhelming Segway into the strikingly cinematic ‘33 "GOD"’. The latter of the two boasts a plethora of fantastic instrumentation. Beginning with an uncanny piano phrase that is transformed through gradual layering of soaring vocal samples, drum lines and even a banjo, ‘33 “GOD”’ is easily the stand out track on the album.
Amongst all this, the most characteristically sounding Bon Iver track that falls on 22, A Million is ‘29 #Strafford APTS’, sharing resemblance to a Neil Young song being driven through pitch shifters and synthesizers. It provides a warming break amongst the chaos that surrounds either side of it.
On the second half of the record, the listener is subjected to two more underwhelming sound scapes with ‘666 ʇ’ and ‘21 M♢♢N WATER’. Whilst not being bad songs and again showcases Vernon’s ability to layer and marry sounds, the songs do not add any additional cohesion or movement to an already directionless album.
One of the strongest and unhindered vocal performances for Vernon falls on ‘8 (circle)’, another heavily synthesized track reminiscent of a slow 80s ballad. Though it creeps over the five-minute mark, it comes through as one of the most focused cuts on the entire record and like ‘29 #Strafford APTS’, stands out from the disorder.
Unsurprisingly, the album concludes with two tracks that could not fall further away from each other. A disjointed and almost lazy showing on “____45_____”, displays nothing more than a battle of forgetful vocal phrases and synthetic saxophones. Like several other tracks, it appears as nothing more than a half-cooked idea when contrasted with the beautiful piano ballad ‘0000 Million’ that concludes the record.
On face value, Vernon consistently provides a beautiful insight into his experiences by virtue of his song writing ability. However, the introspection is often lost on 22, A MIllion, too often denying the listener the ability to aptly dissect the tracks’ meaning with constant vocal processing and over-production. This is not aided by the fact that too often the songs end abruptly or appear somewhat incomplete.
Despite the negatives, the great moments on 22, A Million are without doubt some of the most interesting that Vernon has put together and as stand alone tracks, further uncover the ever-evolving landscape of Bon Iver.
Darcy Coombs hides behind his computer as the beat scribe for his band Otious. You'll find him voicing his opinions in 'Read'. He also hasn't grown a millimetre since he was 14.