“It might be over soon,” begins Justin Vernon, the frontman of Bon Iver. He’s right. 22, A Million, Bon Iver’s first album in over five years, is a genre-bending 34-minute whirlwind that will probably leave you wondering, what ever happened to my Bon Iver? When I think of Bon Iver, “acoustic recluse” is the phrase that first pops into my mind. For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon’s first album under Bon Iver, melted hearts, as his delicate, swooning voice echoed throughout the Wisconsin forests that birthed his original masterpiece. A few Kanye West collaborations later, Vernon released Bon Iver’s self-titled album, and again fans fell captive to the depths of his hermetic wisdom, this time accompanied by a large band and glossy auto-tune. Now, he abandons many trademark elements of his first two works and sometimes fails to prioritize enjoyment over experimentation.
“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” the most cryptic song on his latest album (yes, those symbols are in the title), demands too much of his audience. Over-layered vocals compelled me to replay the track, but each time I listened I felt more defeated, unable to make out more than half of Vernon’s words. So, I looked them up online. I almost wish I hadn’t because they, like his diction, were wildly inaccessible. Phrases like “fever rest” and “unorphaned in our northern lights” almost justify Vernon digitally mumbling his words in the first place. Maybe he doesn’t want to admit that certain concepts of his are just gibberish. “666 ʇ” also suffers from this digitalized mumbling and unfortunately happens to have some of the album’s richest lyrics. “No, I don’t know the path / Or what kind of pith I’ve amassed” candidly describe Vernon’s general effort to contemplate and appreciate life’s challenging lessons. These eloquent admissions, that might as well be private, shouldn’t have to be read in print to be understood.
I also found fault with…nope, that was about it. Even with murky mixing and ambiguous verses on some tracks, this album still proved to be an excellent addition to Bon Iver’s eclectic discography. Versatile in both instrumentation and theme, 22, A Million’s quirks kept me enthralled from start to finish. “#29 Strafford APTS,” perhaps the highlight of this album, overruled my fears about messy, indecipherable vocals dominating the remaining 34-minutes. A call for love, directed at no particular lover, “#29 Strafford APTS” lands stylistically somewhere between his For Emma, Forever Ago and self-titled album. Pictures of an “empty robe” bring back memories of a humble Vernon in his log cabin, wondering if he needed much more in life than the company of nature. The most memorable moment of the LP came at the end of this song, when the lyrics “I hold the note / You wrote and know” began to crackle in my headphones; heavy distortion turned my iPhone into an AM radio that someone was trying to tune to the correct frequency. Meanwhile, Vernon fervently prayed that his unknown lover would find his station and call in.
Many times throughout the album, he suggests that religion is the answer to love. “33 GOD,” for example, connects his journey in life to the passion of Christ. Provocative images of “a child ignored” and an outro that raises the question “why are you so far from saving me?” bring to mind a lone Jesus standing on the cross, screaming, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” (Matthew 27:46). More obviously, he inputs faith ironically into his own life as celebrity, admitting that he “[finds] God and religions too… /staying at the Ace Hotel”—an assertion of status that doubles as an advertisement? His belts and loops penetrate through a chorus of gospel-like synthesizers and exotic percussion that alone could suffice for a beautiful track. At points, Vernon almost sounds angry, or at least has edited his voice to a raspy state of frustration. A radical departure from the calm and collected Bon Iver of For Emma, Forever Ago, his discontentment roots in a search for certainty that religion may or may not provide him.
More so than his other albums and most satisfyingly of all, Vernon ultimately does make peace with his perpetual fear of uncertainty. “Must’ve been forces, that took me on them wild courses,” he calmly admits at the start of his finale, “00000 Million.” He knows how chance plays into life, how so many of his successes and failures are out of his control. For the first time in the span of 34-minutes, virtually all his accompaniment comes from recognizable acoustic instruments, and coupled with clear syllables, his message can be approached by almost anyone. His resolve is sudden, a quiet truce: “Well it harms it harms me it harms, I’ll let it in.” Silence drops almost too swiftly. He’s ended the album on his simplest advice. Whether it’s been his bouts with depression or discomfort with fame, Vernon takes these hardships that have made him lonely and adds them to his list of obstacles not to embrace. He knows his days, like his album, might be over soon.