Albums of 2016 (#3): Bon Iver – 22, A Million

On Bon Iver’s engrossing third album 22, A Million, the band’s first album in five years, we hear Justin Vernon triumphantly overcoming his crisis of faith and confidence by asserting himself through technological clutter and finding peace in chaos

Feature by Chris Ogden | 30 Nov 2016

After Bon Iver won two Grammies for their sumptuous self-titled second record in 2011, which saw Justin Vernon embracing both real and imagined geography, he suddenly didn’t know where to find himself at all. Vernon has come a long, long way since that freezing cabin in Wisconsin. 

With its obsessive numerology, hypermodern song titles (that typography! those dice emoji!) and esoteric sampling, 22, A Million looks and sounds as convoluted as Mark Z. Danielewski’s book House of Leaves. The inevitable comparisons the album has had with Radiohead’s dissociative Kid A are slightly askew, because although Vernon’s voice is often distorted as hell, his heart is easy to hear right from the start. From the reflective, soulful opener 22 (OVER S∞∞N), Vernon is an anxious, interrogative presence throughout the record, haunted by the idea of impermanence and searching for meaning, be it in the old constant of religion (33 “GOD” and 666 ʇ) or trying to conjure it via his idiosyncratic, but instinctively understood lyrical phrasing (which other current artist would give us neologisms like ‘fuckified’ or ‘waundry’?)

22, A Million’s inventiveness can’t just be found in its lyrics: the choppy industrial beat and climactic horns of 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ are stunning enough, or how 33 “GOD” morphs from its tinkly piano origins with flecks of folk banjo into thundering, celestial electronica ending with a reference to Psalm 22. The biggest shock, though, is on 715 - CRΣΣKS as a vocoded Vernon reminisces over a lost love before eventually yelling 'God damn, turn around now / You’re my A Team,' the synthesiser straining from the human behind it. It’s the most intense and thrilling a cappella performance since Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek.

Even in its more traditional modes, 22, A Million is gorgeous, with the gentle acoustic picking of 29 #Strafford APTS harking back to the swooning beauty of Bon Iver’s heartbroken debut For Emma, Forever Ago, as Vernon resolves to 'Fold the map and mend the gap / And I tow the word companion / And I make my self escape.'

666 ʇ, however, expands on the grandeur of Bon Iver's self-titled second LP, building on its tenderly modulating synthesiser and chiming guitar before the song erupts with booming, In the Air Tonight drums. ‘What is left when unhungry?’ Vernon muses, and the song disappears suddenly into an abyss. Abrupt endings are a common theme on this record as Vernon finds a potential lead only for it to elude him as soon as he half-grasps it. Any lasting meaning proves to be short-lived.

22, A Million’s meditative final third looks to accept this fate, with 21 M♢♢N WATER’s jazzy age serenity and its contrasting fire-themed gospel  ____45_____ clever bookends to the pillowy 80s soft-rock track 8 (circle) in which Vernon harmonises with himself only to wake up high again. 00000 Million proves to be an equally restorative closer as 2011’s Beth/Rest, as Vernon gives up counting days and concludes, ‘If it’s harmed / It’s harmed me / It'll harm me / I’ll let it in’.

Ultimately, 22, A Million taps into the same strange wonder as Denis Villeneuve’s recent sci-fi film Arrival where Dr Louise Banks understands the sadness to come yet decides to embrace life in all of its anxieties and losses. What more rejuvenating message could Bon Iver offer after the shitsock of a year that was 2016? After all, it might be over sooner than we think.