Album Review: “22, A Million” by Bon Iver

Album Review: 22, A Million by Bon Iver

When “For Emma, Forever Ago” debuted, Justin Vernon was 26 years old, at the beginning of his professional career. It’s wholly unusual, then, that his first studio album with Bon Iver was so remarkably self-contained and well-developed. The sepulchral regrets in songs like “Flume” and “Hinnom” are evident in lines that echo the whisper of wind; “Fall in / fall out / fall along.” His voice twisted through autotune and falsetto, Vernon sighs and mourns something lost.

“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” is a madness. “Fe, fever rest / Fever rest / (Wild heart, wild heart) / I cut you in / Deafening” is stacked upon choirs of deranged saxophones and wildly distorted brass, voices tumbling into a symphony of schizophrenic cries. There’s a cutting violence about “22, A Million,” a self-destructive anger that rises and works through each verse. However, like a Greek tragedy, the experience is cathartic, akin to a dam coming undone.

Where “Emma” was an elegy and “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” a road-trip into reverie, Vernon’s newest work is a descent into insanity. Look to the lines above — they echo a feverish liminal state of humanity, an alternate bizarro world briefly glimpsed in his lyric video for “33 ‘GOD,’” which begins with deluded calm and falls into an anarchic display of symbology and synth.

“22, A Million” is a disturbing electronically manipulated mass of bass, interspersed with heavy drums and Vernon’s signature falsetto cries. “For Emma, Forever Ago” was dedicated to Vernon’s ill-fated relationship, and “22, A Million” appears to consort with the shadow of collectivism. Indeed, it echoes a particular Biblical tale … “What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.” There are many voices here, layered over the instrumentation, and they often intersect, overlap or out-cry one another in a pandemonium of sound. And, curiously enough, even amidst the storm, Vernon is more often alone than not; he begs company with his soft singing, pleads for someone to share in him.

It’s a damn fine album, and it’s Vernon’s most alienating work. “22, A Million” seems less a traditional musical endeavor and more an exercise in exorcism, wrestling with Vernon’s own devils. And its heavy production makes love to the band’s traditional roots, resulting in a bastard folk-electronica mixture. There are moments of balance, hiding bashfully among the sound and fury. When Vernon sings, “there isn’t ceiling in our garden,” in “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” he seems, if not happy, then at least reconciled to his turmoil.

Though the band has abandoned its stylistic constraints for a broader, genre-distilled approach, the lyrics underpinning each piece contain elements of the songwriter’s midwestern country origins. There are northern lights, consecration, broken-down towns and meditations upon God. And, occasionally, low threats of reprisal to an unnamed darling. For all its detachment, “22, A Million” returns obsessively to love and the hurt that so often accompanies the loss of that love. Vernon seems well aware of the cruelty of these thoughts — they’re contained in short fragments, permitted only harshness. He doesn’t allow his poison any sweet sound. In the end, the album is an ode to multiplicity. It’s good, and maybe it’ll last. In time, perhaps even Vernon’s season of lamentations and madness will pass.


Rating: A
Release Date: September 30, 2016

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