Clearly, Bon Iver has set out to make an album that challenges expectations, with an emphasis on deconstructing traditional song forms and reconstituting them using modern technology and contemporary influences. While this approach at first gives 22, A Million a strange and standoffish quality, upon repeated listens it becomes clear that he has succeeded in creating an original record that stands on its own, sounding both contemporary and instantly classic. Justin Vernon manages to infuse his pop and hip hop influenced production with a wondrously warped and emotional sensibility that seeks to single-handedly redefine the palette of singer-songwriters such as himself. What at first seems like chilly and emaciated music reveals itself to be a novel perspective on Americana and pop songwriting in general.
The structure of 22, A Million seems intentionally jarring. The first three songs, “22 Over Soon”, “10dEATHBREAST” and “715 CREEKS” float by on ethereal layers of abstract sound and vocoder, with Vernon sounding as though he is trapped inside the heavily processed production. Upon first listen the choice to begin the record with these three short and somewhat inscrutable songs seems odd, as the album settles into the meatier material only later. But once you know that these more fleshed out and emotionally available songs are coming, these initial tracks reveal their pleasures as well. “10dEATHBREAST” in particular has a forward momentum that climaxes with the entrance of beautiful brass textures, and “715-CREEKS” is a moving acapella vocoder gospel that alludes to emotional stasis.
But it is with the album’s fourth track that it starts to become clear the breadth of emotion that this album has to offer. “33 ‘GOD’” begins with strings and some of the ambient textures from the first three songs, but builds a sense of dynamic tension and release as the melody lines dart and weave and the stuttering drum machine beats drop in and out. This is followed by “29 #Strafford APTS”, the first song on the album to prominently feature a softly strummed guitar. But this song is far from a typical ballad; again there are vocoders and minimal splashes of orchestration. At one point Vernon’s voice loses the woozy effects and becomes bare and raw, and the result is revelatory.
This is followed by “666”, probably the albums most instantly lovable track. Pensive, ghostly guitars begin the song and are quickly joined by Vernon singing a heartbreaking melody composed of melancholy and reflective lyrics. The song builds from here to a wistful anthem. It is with this song that the cumulative effect of the albums other tracks really begins to take hold, and does not let go. Though it occasionally returns to abstraction, the context of the album’s more accessible moments casts these sonic explorations as integral parts of the whole.
Emotionally, there is certainly a pervasive sense of ennui that this collection of songs inhabits. It is an ideal album for driving at night, or any moments of intense personal reflection. Like many ambitious pop albums before it, from Hounds of Love to Kid A, it balances the instantly likable and familiar with moments of experimentation and genre-bending. And, like those albums, 22, A Million is a progressive and standalone album full of deep emotions and clever ingenuity.
review by Dan Geddes