Album Review: Bon Iver - 22, A Million
The new Bon Iver album, 22, A Million, has been on my computer since the last day of August, and maybe a week or two after that, I mentioned to my wife, in passing, that I had listened to it.
It was then that she asked me what it sounded like, and, without missing a beat, I referred to it as ‘masturbatory music that fails to climax.’
She had a look of confusion on her face, and I elaborated, saying that it was very experimental in nature, primarily based around myriad samples—pitch shifted vocals and otherwise.
Shortly following the conclusion of the second Eaux Claires festival, where Justin Vernon and the band known as Bon Iver played the new record from start to finish, live, as well as the subsequent release of the album’s first two tracks as singles, I wrote a lengthy thinkpiece, or whatever, about my own history listening to Bon Iver, and my thoughts on the confoundingly titled songs “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠.”
There is really no point in rehashing the first two tracks on 22 for the sake of this comprehensive review of the album—it’s best to just dive into the other eight songs that follow those.
Putting it lightly, 22, A Million is, overall, an unfocused hot mess that, because it’s never okay to form your own opinions on anything that is widely embraced, I will, more than likely, be accused of “not getting” or “not appreciating” this record, or some bullshit like that.
Or that I wasn’t trying hard enough when I listened to it.
But whatever. I don’t care. This is awful and there isn’t much you can say that will change my mind.
At first glance, the album appears mercifully short: a slim 10 tracks, it clocks in at slightly over a half-hour in length. However, that doesn’t take into account the ‘director’s cut of a film about molasses rolling up a hill’ pacing that Vernon eases into by the third track—a choice that makes listening to 22 a real exercise in listener patience; something that, for me, was wearing mighty thin by its conclusion.
There are very few elements of the “old” Bon Iver found on 22, A Million—a guitar shows up on the album’s title track, and some acoustic finger plucking arrives later on “29 #Strafford APTS.” And the sonic growth from the band’s sophomore album is present—like on the slightly alarmingly titled “666 ʇ”—but that growth has continued and has taken on a mutated form. There are flourishes of horn arrangements and piano tinkling, but throughout, Vernon has let the big, bombastic sound he captured in 2011 get away from him, and the result is something that, sonically, is spiraling out of control.
The stop-gap Blood Bank EP, released very early in 2009, included the now infamous auto-tuned layering, acapella track “Woods,” which later would be reinvented by Vernon’s side project Volcano Choir as “Still,” and then, the following year, would be interpolated into Kanye West’s “Lost in The World.”
Here, Vernon returns to his acapella vocal musings—“ 715 – CRΣΣKS” finds him stacking part auto-tuned and part vocoded vocal tracks, while he lets moody, ambiguous non sequitors fly like “toiling with your blood,” and emotes with all his might while shouting “Honey, understand that I’ve been left here in the reeds.”
That’s the real question in a song like this (as well as with this entire album.) Is it just to flex his vocal prowess for two minutes and change? It, like many songs on 22, A Million, seem to be ‘experimentation for the sake of experimentation,’ as if to say, “look at what I can do,” or, “take me seriously, for I am an ‘Artist’ with a capital A”—but they leave the listener with little to no substance; only a flashy, quirky, and passing style.
Despite the album’s overall turgid aesthetic and frustrating demeanor, there (surprisingly) a few elements that stood out for me—one of those things is the aforementioned use of vocal samples.
On “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠,” the uncredited use of a Stevie Nicks sample doesn’t work—and hell, that whole song is probably the album’s worst. However, the up shifted “It might be over soon” as well as the use of elements from “How I Got Over” on the title track are actually rather impactful, as is the appearance of lines borrowed from “Abacus” by singer/songwriter Fionn Regan on 22’s reflective closing track, “00000 Million.”
In his work with the Minneapolis collective Gayngs, as well as with his sophomore album’s closing track “Beth/Rest,” Vernon showed his slightly ironic, yet slightly earnest interest in embracing soft rock. “Need more Hornsby in my scene,” Vernon tweeted in 2011—he makes a brief return to that sound with saxophone drenched “8 (Circle),” which happens to be one of the other palatable moments on 22.
On the one hand, this is all very admirable. I guess that’s, like, one of the few positive things I can say about this record.
I admire Vernon’s commitment to this idea. After saying Bon Iver, as a project, was “winding down,” it is admirable for him to resurrect it, however, it is confusing that he’s chosen to resurrect it in this way. His time spent paling around with James Blake and Kanye West have broadened his soundscapes, and his embracing and execution of incorporating technology into this set of songs is also admirable. I’m sure it’s not easy to sit down and figure out how to develop a “cut and paste aesthetic.”
Vernon’s confidence in this album is also admirable. It’s a huge risk at this point in his storied career. He has to believe that overall, his audience will “get it,” and will follow along. Like any musical risk taken by any artist with a large audience, there are those who will feel alienated by the change. There are the casual fans that probably just want to hear another “Holocene” or another “Skinny Love” and don’t want a dense, difficult listen. They want music you don’t have to think about, but right now, that’s what Vernon wants you to do.
But then there are those fans that may actually like this, and find something within that resonates. Or, there are the fans that feel like they have to like this, and are too afraid to admit that it just isn’t very good.
But admiring the confidence and dedication to something doesn’t mean that I enjoyed it. My problem with 22, A Million is not its experimental nature. No. My problem is that it is boring as shit.
From start to finish, there is almost no energy found on 22. Save for a few moments, it is a primarily lifeless listening experience, which I think adds to how difficult it was for me to sit through.
From the dangerously pretentious press release regarding this record, I understand that it is “part love letter, part final resting place of two decades of searching for self-understanding like a religion. And the inner-resolution of maybe never finding that understanding.” And yes, I get that numbers are important or something for Vernon, which is why every song title has a number in it.
However, art for art’s sake doesn’t always generate “good art” in the end, and this is one of those times. I hesitate to say that 22, A Million is a disappointment because, really, I had no expectations going into it. It’s an album that will be revered by some for its fearless attitude about music, and others will revile it for that very same reason. It wants to be special and captivating to its listeners—it wants that more than anything. It may be ‘masturbatory music that fails to climax,’ but it also fails at what I presume to be its primary objective, which is to be some kind of life affirming musical experience. In the end, for all its studio wizardry and desperate tries, it winds up affirming nothing.
If you like wasting money, 22, A Million is out on Friday, Sept. 30th, via Jagjaguwar on LP, CD, and cassette tape.