Record #351: Bon Iver – 22, A Million (2016)

When Justin Vernon walked out of his cabin in 2007 with For Emma, Forever Ago, he fulfilled a simple narrative: the monastic lovelorn folk hero who isolated himself following some trauma and created a sparse record meditating on that heartbreak. It was an easy enough archetype, and we were all happy to keep him there.

​But he had other plans. 

Like Dylan before him, he spent the next several years defying expectations. For Emma’s immediate follow up, the Blood Bank EP, ended with a track called “Woods” which saw Vernon’s unaccompanied voice ran through autotune and looped over and over itself until it formed some robotic choir.

Then there was Volcano Choir, the experimental noise rock project with math-rock group Collection of Colonies of Bees; the supergroup Gayngs, which sought to reappropriate 80s soft rock tropes in earnest; the blues rock group Shouting Matches, which released an album titled Grown Ass Man; and frequent collaborations with James Blake (not too surprising) and r (a little more surprising).

Even Bon Iver, Bon Iver found the acoustic guitars of the debut paired with a large ensemble of strings, saxophones, and synthesizers to create an album that trafficked more in chamber, dream pop, and soulful R&B than folk. But unlike Dylan before him, all of these steps seemed more like the uncovering of a larger picture of Vernon’s truer self than knee-jerk reactions to the pigeonholes he’s been stuffed into. 

Bon Iver, Bon Iver had already blown the walls off of the cabin, so the trajectory for a follow up (if it would ever happen) was anybody’s guess. And even within the scope of the expanded Bon Iver catalogue, 22, A Million is still surprising. There are a few familiar faces—harmonies as lush as an overgrown field, tear-jerking saxophone lines, brilliant composition–but they are in an unfamiliar place.

Neither the cabin nor the woods exists anymore, replaced with a digital wasteland laden with sub-busting bass synths, clacking drum machines, and wandering samples (one of these samples is from a church in my hometown. Small world).

And somehow, it doesn’t feel unfamiliar. Instead, 22, A Million feels like the purest distillation of Justin Vernon’s other projects. There’s Gayngs’ glitching atmospheres, Volcano Choir’s unpredictable arrangements, and Kanye’s middle-finger fearlessness. Vernon’s lyrics, which have always favored heart over head, are the most impressive example of wringing emotional power out of strung-together word salad to date. For example, “I’m unorphaned in our Northern lights,” “We’ve galvanized at the squall of it all.” They look like nonsense on the page, but when paired with Vernon’s iconic falsetto and the group’s ability to conjure worlds out of thin air, they carry an unexplained emotional heft. ​