In a revealing biography posted to Bon Iver’s official webpage proceeding the release of 22, A Million, Trever Hagen discussed an “inner storm, a mental sickness of anxiety” his friend and band frontman Justin Vernon experienced after the success of the band’s two previous seminal records. This uncertainty is central to the themes of the new album. Vernon is looking for something in the world, in himself, and it’s ambiguous whether he finds it or not.
22, A Million is another significant overhaul of Bon Iver’s sound towards a more abstract, elusive route. From the crazy song titles to the recurring glitchy electronics, the album is the most experimental to date. That said, the move isn’t unprecedented, as Vernon’s numerous other projects (Volcano Choir, collaborations with Kanye, etc.) add some context to the shift. Some songs also mirror previous releases; “715 - CR∑∑KS” calls back to “Woods” (from Blood Bank EP, 2009), and “8 (circle)” isn’t too far removed from “Calgary” (from 2011's Bon Iver, Bon Iver). Peter Gabriel, who has covered Bon Iver before (and vice versa), is an obvious influence throughout, especially on “33 “GOD””. The experimentation pays off, giving way to some of the band’s best work- “666 ʇ”, “8 (circle)” and “00000 Million”, though no song is without it's merits.
Vernon has always been a master of ambiguous, yet evocative lyrics. This trend is continued; for every relatively straightforward line like “It might be over soon”, there’s an abstract line like “A womb, an empty robe, enough.” Delving into the lyrics deeper, the album reveals often profound explorations of apprehension, nostalgia and spirituality. Some lines don’t quite work out (“I’d be happy as hell if you stayed for tea”), but these are forgivable slips given so many hit hard (“It harms me… I’ll let it in.”).
Overall, 22, A Million is another strong release from an exemplary creative force. Whether it exceeds the quality of previous releases is, of course, a matter of personal taste, but it puts in a strong case. There are boundless opportunities to meditate and get lost in its often bizarre but always beautiful soundscape, and for all its obscurity, it’s hard not to be moved in some way.
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