Justin Vernon, the creator and front man of the indie folk juggernaut Bon Iver, never intended to be famous. He captured attention with the self-released love anthem For Emma, Forever Ago in 2007, which was recorded in the snowy dead of winter while secluded in his father’s Eau Claire, Wisconson hunting cabin. In 2011, Vernon (and his band that he had gathered to be called Bon Iver) drew international acclaim with Bon Iver, Bon Iver which marked a more ethereal and spacey indie folk sound over the minimalism of the last record. The album was internationally revered, selling over a hundred thousand in its first week, topping multiple year-end lists, and being nominated for several Grammies, winning best alternative album.
But for someone who doesn’t really enjoy the spotlight, where are you supposed to go from there? This question is answered on the band’s first album in five years 22, A Million which marks more drastic departure in sound than their last record. Since 2010 Vernon has collaborated creatively with a number of artists including Kanye West, especially on his 2013 experimental album Yeezus and electronic R&B singer James Blake earlier this year. The influence of these types of alternative and unconventional sounds and styles is very apparent on 22, A Million which takes a leap away from indie folk into the realm of folktronica.
The opener, “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, one of ten equally cryptic track titles, is somewhat jarring on first listen. Layers of samples, most notably a high-pitched “it might be over soon” build in the intro, before Vernon’s falsetto enters, and instruments begin to meld. It’s a disarming song, said to be written about Vernon’s anxiety on fame, and the hope that it may be over soon. It’s one of the more accessible, reminiscent songs on the album alongside a warped traditional folk song “29 #Strafford APTS”, delicate, dreamlike ballads “8 (Circle)” and “666 ʇ” as well as “33, ‘GOD’” which again utilizes layers of samples and exquisite folk melodies to great effect in what is one of the most sonically stunning compositions released this year. Others, like “715 – CRΣΣKS” which is a capella with a number of vocal effects and “10 d E A T h b R E a s t” which is almost abrasive in its electronic mixing, fit the mold of the album, albeit being less radio-friendly than others.
Many of the lyrics on this record are nonsensical, and written purely for their sonic value rather than telling the story. It’s the sound, rather, that tells the story, in all of its glitch, and strange wonder. Vernon ruminates of fame, religion, days past and life through the, often esoteric and sublime, music. He doesn’t necessarily find an answer for himself either. The final, beautifully haunting track “00000 Million” closes with “where the days have no numbers/it harms me, it harms me, it harms me, I’ll let it in”. Vernon’s anxious, yet accepting uncertainty, could be attributed for the listener as well. Just let the music in. Which is an easy request; 22, A Million, is one of the most challenging, creative, and stunningly gorgeous records of the year.