If there was ever going to be a third participant into the holy trinity of emotional and hugely profound albums – behind David Bowie’s Blackstar and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree – then Bon Iver’s much-much-much-anticipated-and-then–some album, 22, A Million is it. Justin Vernon brought For Emma, Forever Ago out in 2007 and brought Bon Iver to the world. That album was conceived and recorded in Medford, Wisconsin in Vernon’s father’s log cabin. Secluded, remote and in the wilderness: This was the place a divine, intimate and deeply personal album was crafted and born. Following a break-up with his girlfriend; Vernon began to hunt for food; lay around and generally submit to a lackadaisical and simple lifestyle. After three weeks, songs began to ruminate and ideas put together.
Critics went nuts for the album’s purity, incredible personality and sound. Not conforming to narrative structure and typical structures of confessional albums: It contained natural imagery and heartfelt insights; like diary entries and observations from a man assessing life and trying to piece everything together. The double-named eponymous album was released four years after the debut and that wait left some rather sore, restless and unhappy. It was hardly a shock delay from a man who had created an album that was essentially a life-long confession and violent emotional breakdown – albeit it one funnelled and concentrated into hymnal beauty and soul-touching mini-dramas. Bon Iver, Bon Iver resonated but not to the same degree.
Perhaps the ‘overblown’ compositions and introduction of instrumentation scared some people off – not the same intimacy and sparse tenderness of For Emma, Forever Ago. If the debut was the sound of a man wrestling against heartbreak and lost in the world: The sophomore declaration was a man coming back into the world and integrating himself with society. Not a human to rush things: 22, A Million arrives after a five-year gap and much speculation as to whether he would release an album. Maybe a little jarred by some criticism or working out a new sound – the latest record balances his previous two but has the same effect and quality as For Emma, Forever Ago.
One of the biggest derisions and talking-points of 22, A Million is the cryptic (some might say irksome and pretentious) song titles which are hard enough to type, let alone pronounce. All that confusion and anger dissipates upon “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and its strange and beautiful little world. Oblique and slightly mysterious – the hero standing at the stage wondering if it will happen – it “might be over soon”. Quirky electronic echoes and the occasional string; horns and a head-spinning mix of elements and emotions go into a fantastical and hugely evocative lead-in. Jazz elements (silkily smooth horns) and gospel (female vocals) go together in harmony and one of Bon Iver’s finest tracks thus far. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” eradicates the tranquility and replaces it with distorted and twisted tribal beats and electronic distortion. It is the kind Glass Animals laced through Life Itself (and How to Be a Human Being) but here it is more savage and unexpected. Bellicose and stampeding: “I cut you in deafening fever rest” it is told; adding to that mystique and oblique edge. The hero has been sleeping in a stable and will do his sweetheart no favours. Perhaps a smash against a bad love or a man at the end of his rope – one hears that emotion and anger bubble under the wave of scratchy electronics and rumbling beats.
“33 “GOD” is one of those tracks that brings you back down to Earth and comes with graceful piano and soothing vocals. “I’d be as hell, if you stayed for tea” Vernon sings: “These will just be places to me now” suggests a mixture of detachment and loneliness; a man looking for answers and affection. Blending a snippet from Paolo Nutini’s Iron Sky and bringing some savage beats into the mix: The track changes tact and unleashes a violent, sustained assault on the senses. As beguiling, intoxicating and peculiar as anything on the album: It is also a clear standout.
“21 M♢♢N WATER” is a track that may not get serious airplay but is a definite jewel waiting for discovery. Written with Sean Carey; it swoons, floats on the ocean and finds lyrics like “The math ahead, the math behind it… moon water” accompanied with a calm and soulful vocal. One of the most concentrated and focused vocals – Carey’s tones give the song edge and new insight – you revel in the layers and depths it offers. “____45_____” finds the hero “carved in fire” and at his most fraught and naked. His voice barely keeps its composure against the odd rush of horns and musical accompaniment. Becoming layered and jazz-tinged; unpredictable and hugely engrossing – yet another left-turn and wonderful revelation from Bon Iver.
There were sceptics who felt Bon Iver’s debut was a moment of one-off genius never to be repeated. 22, A Million is not quite as mesmerising and huge as For Emma, Forever Ago but is a completely different album. It is as musically busy as Bon Iver, Bon Iver but contains the emotion, vulnerability and brilliance that run wild throughout the debut. Hard to pin down at first: It will take a few listens before you fully comprehend the album. A brave, startling and revealing statement from a musician who, some nine years after his debut, is still searching, experimenting and peerless. 22, A Million will not gain the same hysteria as For Emma, Forever Ago but will still rank as one of this year’s greatest album – fully deserving of standing alongside Blackstar and Skeleton Tree as a true work of 2016-genius.
22, A Million is available from September 30th through Jagjaguwar