​Bon Iver is transcendent on new record

New sound of “22, A Million” does not miss a beat

Imagine if Henry David Thoreau emerged from the woods, listened exclusively to Kanye West and Frank Ocean for a couple of years, then wrote the sequel to “Walden.” Now go listen to Bon Iver’s “22, A Million” and imagine no more. Five years after a progressively expansive self-titled sophomore record, the indie giant has released a record which makes its past experimentation sound like the Beatles’ pre-LSD records.

With “22, A Million,” frontman Justin Vernon has reached a point where neither he nor his music can even be described by the vague and encompassing genre of “indie.” Vernon has transcended musical conformity to any notion of a genre, as well as to the expectations of his fans. “I feel both blessed and cursed by the fact that I can do whatever I want at this point… It’s important to me to not pay any attention to questions of, ‘What’s your legacy going to be?’” Vernon said in an interview with the New York Times.

Much like how the music and song titles of “Bon Iver” are structured around places, “22, A Million” is centered around numbers. The underlying theme is a cryptic tale of “Vernon vs. the world” where Vernon is represented by 22, which he views as a meaningful number. The Million, essentially, represents everyone else. Despite the sometimes indistinguishable lyrics, this narrative is tangible through the meticulously crafted compositions of the record.

Rather than songs, Vernon has assembled an album of landscapes which listeners are invited to explore. Vernon’s voice simply becomes another instrument in the intricate orchestra of Bon Iver. Vernon turns autotune from a pop cheat-code into a shrewdly used creative device: he layers his voice upon itself, creating an ensemble effect, and yet his lyrics are still able to break through this distortion. “Where you gonna look for confirmation?” he echoes in the first line of the album’s opener, “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” not taking long to tug at a psychological question which drives everyone at a fundamental level.

The duality which Vernon explores with the personified “22” versus “A Million” can also be felt in the way the album sounds distant yet somehow strikes so deeply emotionally. The music of “For Emma, Forever Ago” may be gone, but the raw spirit still remains. Whether they’re saxophones on “____45_____” which are so low you can hear the breath in each one, or the gentle guitar plucking of “29 #Strafford APTS,” the aura which Bon Iver has created over the last decade is intact.

Thoreau writes in “Walden,” “Things do not change; we change.” Such is true for Justin Vernon and Bon Iver. The world around Vernon has not changed, but the way he approaches it has, resulting in the experimental shift of “22, A Million.” Music is the lens through which Vernon views his surroundings, and “22, A Million” is his attempt to hand us that lense so we may see, too. Vernon’s first two albums were mental Band-Aids, so to speak, used to heal and forget. On “22, A Million” he wants to show how life is an ongoing struggle but we must move forward, as he sings on “33 ‘GOD’”: “I could go forward in the light / Well, I better fold my clothes.”

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