The long-awaited release from Bon Iver refreshes the sonic palette, and may just be their landmark record.
The first offering from Bon Iver in the last half-decade is nothing short of an existential masterpiece. The incomparable third full length album entitled 22, A Million is more exploratory in delivery than either of it’s predecessors, yet bears the same skeletal, impressionist tone that we’ve come to expect from a voice like Justin Vernon’s. At once, it’s everything you’d expect from a Bon Iver record, and nothing you could have ever imagined. In a fervent search for appropriate descriptors, we will always land at one – this is a gorgeous record.
This record is interesting to digest. It is apparent the debate will rage on as to whether or not we bear witness to a confused stylistic departure or an evolutionary sonic palette in continuous shift. As such, it’s important to examine both the technical value of this latest effort and the overall stylistic significance.
Technically, there’s no denying the talent that is Justin Vernon (let alone the rest of the band he’s assembled). The sacredness of Bon Iver’s gone by is ever present on this record. On “(8) Circles” we are treated to a softness all too familiar. The crowning glory of 22, A Million will remain its enigmatic timbre and songwriting that exudes pain, introspection, and remains on message. With such a weighted, potent introductory phrase, “It might be over soon,” one can’t help but submit to the cathartic reflection Vernon begs of his audience.
From a production standpoint, we are privy to a mighty clash between tradition and technology. When an artist debuts with a record as scintillating as For Emma, Forever Ago, it becomes difficult to posture what kind of trajectory their career will take. An album so purely folk gives way to the outfit’s self-titled follow-up with which we all marveled at the ingenuity on display. Vernon, surrounded by a full band, including otherworldly saxophonist Colin Stetson, was afforded the opportunity to force the issue of musical expression. To take chances. Given another definite creative shift on this record, we are overwhelmed with feelings reminiscent of Dylan at Newport, or Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, or the arc of Radiohead up to the release of Kid A. Vernon has positioned his project to value each nuance of the folk music it was born into, and at the same time accept the creative leaps made by the industry and it’s biggest players. The game has officially changed.
Though many sounds are manufactured, there is still an ethereal quality to the vocal layering on the vast majority of these songs. Sure, the soul of this album is expected, but its vessel should come as no surprise. Vernon’s appetite for unique vocal modulation and experimental production has only been fed by appearances on a wide variety of hip-hop projects. He’s somehow managed to complicate things, push a number of musical boundaries to their limit and still convey the most basic, simplistic emotion. The evolution of Woods, a track off of the Blood Bank EP, into the Kanye track Lost in the World, on to 715 – CRΣΣKS evidences this perfect transition. The track is stoic, minimalistic, and frank. Lyrically, we are allowed our own interpretations of lines like “I remember something.” The commentary is disjointed, but passionately accessible. It’s clear that Vernon’s songwriting hasn’t shed an ounce of it’s magic. His ability to tow the line between ambiguity and perfect clarity is mind-blowing.
What’s been forever enticing about Vernon and the Bon Iver project is it’s unequivocal simplicity. With the technological advances made and the prevalence of digitized music and digitizing sounds, it has become easy to overlook this foundation. While there is a lot going on with this album, a sonic transformation will keep things interesting. With chaos comes an opportunity for growth. A brilliant feat has been accomplished when an artist can innovate, invent, and evolve without compromise.
Only time will tell what will come with the next evolution of Bon Iver. For now, let’s enjoy what may well be their landmark album.