Bon Iver’s 22, A Million Defies Expectations of The Mainstream

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22, A Million is not easily consumed. It’s not the same faux-hipster coffee shop music found on acclaimed previous releases from Bon Iver, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago and 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver. It’s an art piece that demands multiple listens before it can be readily understood.

This much-anticipated release marks a distinctly new direction for songwriter Justin Vernon. The raw indie folk that catapulted him to fame in 2008 exists no more; characteristic strings and layered vocal harmonies remain, but are now mixed with a variety of samples and electronic distortions.

Vernon is known for his aversion to fame (take, for example, the publicity photos from 22, A Million that neglect to show his entire face). 22, A Million, with its cryptic song titles and extreme distortions, may be the manifestation of the artist’s distaste for his ever-growing popularity. Vernon’s experimental choices are deliberately hard to swallow at times; these songs are difficult to grapple with, not suited for mainstream tastes.

The tracks on 22, A Million are filled with fragments of distorted, melodic motifs that depart from Bon Iver’s traditional song structure. There are many layers of sound to comprehend at once, requiring effort from the listener even in the album’s most fragile and beautiful moments. The tracks also feel unresolved, building up but failing to provide consolation and comfort after the introduction of so many different aural pieces. Perhaps the most tension-filled moment on 22, A Million is the ending of “21 M♢♢N WATER,” a series of experimental sounds that is almost unlistenable until it segues into “8 (circle)” (which happens to be the track most reminiscent of Bon Iver’s previous material).

However, the album is not without its remarkable moments. Vernon’s tenderly autotuned falsetto on “29 #Strafford APTS” is particularly breathtaking and heartbreaking, and the closing track “00000 Million” features calming harmonies of Vernon’s voice atop a piano melody. The album’s ending feels like a redemption for the listener after their struggle through the heavy and experimental preceding tracks. Yet the album demands another listen as soon as it concludes, compelling the listener to attempt a more resolved (and unattainable) comprehension from the tracks again and again.

Many moments on 22, A Million are reminiscent of Kanye West, a past collaborator of Vernon’s. It is not hard to imagine Bon Iver’s new folk-electronica tracks being sampled in a future Kanye project—remember the incorporation of “Woods” into West’s “Lost In The Woods”? “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” in particular sounds as if it could be a part of West’s Yeezus with its heavily distorted hip-hop drums. This similarity brings to light the contrast between the fame-shy Vernon and West. Kanye is not hesitant to put forth anything he can conceive at any time, be it music, fashion, or Tweets, his ego powered by the public reaction (“You can say whatever you want. They can't control the artist's opinion anymore,” he said at his recent concert in Columbus); Vernon, on the other hand, took a five-year hiatus from creating new music with Bon Iver, needing a reprieve from the weight of being in the spotlight.

22, A Million is certainly not meant for mainstream consumption, and not every creator is meant for the burden of fame. In Vernon’s case, this struggle is rewarding for his audience, so long as they can make it through the material he has drawn from it.

Rating: 8/10

Key Tracks: “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” “29 #Strafford APTS”

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