Justin Vernon is no stranger to spilling his guts. With each of its records since its 2007 debut release, For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver has expanded its scope: Subtle, cozy acoustics have given way to AutoTune and lush instrumentals on subsequent releases. Vernon has handled each transition with poise, expressing himself with new tools as aptly as he did with just a guitar.
22, A Million is the pinnacle of this capability. Vernon paints a nostalgic and emotional tapestry by combining his woodsy ensemble of quiet ambience with magnificent electronics and sonic manipulation.
The environment that surrounds this record is at the very least atypical for Bon Iver. Whereas its previous studio album prominently featured a pastoral, scenic image of a calm Wisconsin wilderness, 22, A Million shows an amalgamation of strange symbols and figures strewn across a black background. The song titles are computerized gibberish, with esoteric ASCII symbols printed alongside erratic capitalization and numeric values. The continuum of one thematic idea is blown apart by a choppy collage of ideas, abstract as they may be.
For the past five years, Vernon has been a creative sponge, soaking up the influences of collaborators — the likes of Kanye West and James Blake perhaps the most prominent. The opening track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is abundant with this influence: The droning horn loop and pitched-up gospel sample that proceed Vernon’s own gorgeous falsetto cue the listener to how different this record will be. But 22, A Million surpasses mere imitation: Vernon simply utilizes these techniques to take his own sound to another world.
Though the sounds of this album may seem even further removed from the experiments of its last album Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver wholeheartedly makes this record its own.. The arrangements, song structures and Vernon’s vocals sound distinctly human over the pulsing drums and dizzying samples. The music of Bon Iver is in a new context, where the metallic hum of “Flume” and the wandering strings and horns of “Holocene” are still present but are now bolstered by electronics and sound manipulation. This contrast puts the lyrical content in a new realm where intimacy comes in the form of raw expression. Vernon is not as concerned with making a direct connection to his listeners as he is with channeling something deeply personal into a separate entity and obscuring it.
22, A Million is the actualization of memory. Though Vernon has delved into the past for inspiration, this record embodies that process, reflecting the duplicitous nature of memory. Every song is inundated with a strange, mystical quality that is unique, implying the song’s correlation with a specific experience.
The track “21 M♢♢N WATER” includes lyrics referencing mathematics and moon water (a mysterious liquid used by witches to brew potions) and weaving between the stanzas are voices, sound blips and echos that act as catalysts for change, contorting Vernon’s word into a mess of emotions and recollection. There is a palpable effort on Vernon’s part to focus on the truth that lies underneath, yet the mental and spiritual manifest in a sonic barrier between his own message and what the listeners hear. The effect is one akin to recounting the details of a childhood story but getting bogged down in overwhelming feeling.
“29 #Strafford APTS,” the track most similar to the band’s acoustic roots, utilizes sonic manipulation with unparalleled poignancy. In the third verse, Vernon’s vocals cut and chop as though they are being broadcast from some far-off radio. The singer is distanced from his audience. There’s an element of timelessness to this moment that reminds listeners that the man who sang that chorus has moved on.
22, A Million is a cinematic record. Like a soundtrack to a movie, each song implies a much deeper connotation to the story of Justin Vernon. Without the visuals, listeners are left with the task of filling in the gaps, attributing each song to an ethereal moment in their own lives. The greatness of this record comes with its anonymity, despite it being so personal. Everyone experiences life, in its swirl of beauty and confusion, and 22, A Million is that soundtrack.