Over the years, one thing about Bon Iver has been very clear: Justin Vernon hates Skinny Love and everything it’s come to stand for in all it’s X-Factor audition glory. It’s no wonder, then, that on this new album Bon Iver sound less like Bon Iver but more an amalgamation of Vernon’s personae over the years: the forsaken lover in the log-cabin, the vocoded accomplice on Kanye West records, and the stadium-aspirant frontman of Volcano Choir.
That Vernon is trying all these guises is certainly an indication of his headspace for the meandering 22, A Million. According to an essay by Vernon’s good mate Trever Hagen on the bizarre tracklist, it’s all about JV trying to find himself again through the philosophical meaning of music, Daoist-impressionism, and a profound journey of existential angst. Clearly someone’s been hanging around with Kanye way too long (see also: 715 – CRΣΣKS, which sounds like a Pablo offcut).
Truth be told, the typography feels a bit too affected – ooh, 22 (OVER S∞∞N) has infinity signs over the temporal ‘soon’, CRΣΣKS rhymes with Greeks so let’s stick a sigma in there, such deep, so wow, etc – but as always it’s when Vernon ditches the gimmicks that he shines. If anything stops this being a retread of his side-project’s work, it’s the little intimate flourishes that he adds in amongst those numerical prefixes like a sequence from Lost and his rampant run with Character Map.
“Oh and I have carried consecration,” he sings on the opener, bracketed by a spine-tingling sax interlude on one side and stirring strings on the other, “and then you expelled all decision/ As I may stand up with a vision.” It’s a moment of quiet beauty that reminds us that this is unequivocally a Bon Iver record, even if a needlessly appropriated sample of Mahalia Jackson‘s famous March of Washington song feels a little bit uncomfortably appropriated.
Of course, some of it seems like a string of consciousness cobbled together without any meaning discernible to anyone other than Vernon himself. 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ (Christ, these track names) is the biggest culprit, taking on the very Vernon neologisms of ‘fuckified’ and whatnot, but it carries just as much of an emotional wallop as the campfire hymn album closer 00000 Million. It’s the most traditional moment of an unpredictable album, a piano-driver paean whose refrain of “it harms me, it harms me” lingers long after the last note fades out.
In that vein, it’s also a relief to have tracks like 8 (circle) and 33 GOD. There’s a celestial arrangement in the latter’s mid-section, like angelsong summing up Vernon’s aggravation and soundtracking his quest to understand his own mortality, crashing down at the end with an almighty crescendo. And funnily enough it’s all very self-referentially summed up in the sledgehammer 666 ʇ: “I don’t know who can call up all the questions/ We know they’re on record/ To clean out her name/ I fell in love,” sings Vernon almost as if For Emma… really was forever ago, even though that voice still pierces us in the same way.
With all these shades and tangents, it’s no surprise that 22, A Million feels like the work of a lost soul, spiritually and artistically. Words seem otherworldly, structures are almost non-existent, and tone flickers with no real degree of consistency, like Vernon himself is paving a path with gorgeous detail and not quite knowing where it leads. It’s frustrating at times, even pretentious on first listen, and yet we haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for weeks, to stop this urge to return to a labyrinthine record to try decipher an additional layer of what oftentimes feels like a long voice-memo monologue committed to studio. It might not be the Bon Iver record we expected but it feels like the richest one to date and certainly, we sense, it’ll be this work of skewed genius that stays in everybody’s consciousness for years to come.