“It might be over soon,” chants an indistinctly high voice at the start of Bon Iver’s latest effort, “22, A Million.” And over soon it was — the ten-track album comes to little more than a half-hour in length. While disappointing in this regard, the album is certainly not lacking in content.
Bon Iver may be best known for their 2011 self-titled album, but frontman Justin Vernon made his proficiency in songwriting clear with 2008’s debut “For Emma, Forever Ago.” The latter formed one of the most defining folk albums that has yet to seep from the 2000’s whilst the former won both a Grammy for the band and a selection from Pitchfork as “Album of the Year.”
It’s these softer, beautiful albums that make “22, A Million” such a damn surprise. No one expected Bon Iver to go and pull a Radiohead on us. Did Vernon just coin the genre of glitch-folk? The electronically-driven album, chronically lacking an acoustic guitar (in most songs), elicits feelings of James Blake, Radiohead’s “Kid-A,” and even a typical EDM song with the second track “10 d E A T h b R E a s T.”
And there’s another thing: the track names. From “33 ‘GOD’” to “666 upside down arrow,” there is no shortage of odd track titles. The physical release comes with unique art for each track containing almost terrifying symbols of vaguely biblically inspired images. I say vaguely, but the extreme number of goat heads, crucifixes, and upside-down crucifixes is probably a bit more heavy-handed than that. For God’s sake, the thing looks like a heavy metal album if you judge it by just the cover. That’s not to say it isn’t a damn cool album cover, perfectly representative of the erratic tracks inside.
On that matter, discussion of individual tracks almost isn’t enough when attempting to process this record. It’s so short and varied, you can only try to describe the way it feels as a whole. The glitched and over-processed vocals, the static-y samples, the token Bon Iver saxophone and overdubbing – they all comes together to form a disgustingly beautiful mesh of experimental bliss. Vernon expertly fuses folk with avant-garde in a manner that hasn’t been so seamlessly done by such a popular artist since, well, Radiohead.
While it may be an ineffective endeavor, one simply can’t pass up discussing the individual tracks at least a little bit. “29 #Strafford APTS,” the fifth song on the album, seems like the closest we get to the “old Bon Iver” with this record. The song, which could be viewed as an ode to the past in some ways, works well at eliciting the sound they had in the past. The following track, “666 upside down arrow” does a good job with this too, but there’s this ever-present electronic loop in the background and some glitchy effects during the chorus that serve to remind you we’re not in entirely familiar territory.
Vernon strips his tracks down into electronic wastelands of visceral noise while also keeping the Bon Iver motif of eclectic instruments. There’s brass parts, string sections, the obvious guitars and drums, the token Bon Iver saxophone. As aforementioned, however, he adds to his list of unique instruments with drum machines and synthesizers as well as gratuitous use of autotune (though that isn’t an inherently new concept for Vernon).
I could talk about each track and each instrument and still not transfer the feeling of the album itself. There’s something special about a man who can make music beyond description. I believe that’s what all art should strive to do — defy. Defy the rules. Defy the past. Defy logic if necessary. It’s expression, and while you are free to express yourself in any way you want, I believe the cream of the crop comes from those artists who are unafraid to express themselves while also bending a few genres. Justin Vernon’s beautiful, weird-ass new piece of art is something that does just that.