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22, A Million: Fantastic or Far-Gone?

Bon Iver's first album in five years changes styles dramatically... Was it worth it?

Justin Vernon’s quietly pleading, crooning falsetto has charmed fans across the globe since his indie folk album For Emma, Forever Ago was released in 2008. In his first two albums, the 35-year-old artist who goes by the name Bon Iver sang with the beautiful but gentle voice of a tortured, melancholy man. After releasing another album and developing a solid fan base across the globe, Bon Iver disappeared. For five years, fans waited and wondered if he would reemerge. Amidst confirmations by Vernon himself that Bon Iver was over, many gave up hope.

Suddenly, in February of this year, Vernon hinted that Bon Iver might not yet be finished. “I’m no longer winding down,” he told Billboard Magazine ominously in an interview. “I’ve definitely been working on music.” He began teasing his fanbase with appearances in other artist’s work. In May, he collaborated on a song with James Blake and Frank Ocean. In July, he appeared in a music video for Francis and the Lights accompanied alongside international superstar, Kanye West. Finally, in August, Bon Iver confirmed the existence of the third studio album to be released in September. It had been over five years since the previous album had debuted .

22, a Million is unlike any of Bon Iver’s previous work.

His old approach has been interrupted, disinterred, exploded

-Jon Caramanica, The New York Times

Previous Bon Iver music carried with it an unmistakable folk rhythm accompanied largely by acoustic guitar and Vernon’s soothing, authentic voice. His songs had recognizable, almost catchy guitar riffs that many a YouTube artist dared cover, though none fully replicated his audible yearning and broken-hearted truths.

The new material is quite the opposite of Vernon’s usual singer-songwriter style. Using a new digital voice-manipulation technology Vernon calls the Messina, his signature falsetto leaps between dissonant chords with an electronic abruptness that is sometimes unsettling. Blips of sound reminiscent of electropop group ODESZA and trip-hoppy, experimental DJ Flume are sprinkled across the first track on the album, “22 (OVER S∞∞N).” An electronically-manipulated voice enters, trilling “it might be over soon,” several times before layers of Vernon’s creamy, breathy voice break through the airy notes, asking, “where you going to look for confirmation?”

Where indeed does Bon Iver look for confirmation? Vernon has long been the type to follow his intuition above all else in society. His first album was created in 2008 in the wake of painful breakups with both his girlfriend and his previous band, DeYarmond Edison. Battling a serious case of mononucleosis that kept him bedridden for three months, Vernon escaped to his father’s cabin in northwestern Wisconsin. It was in those lonely hours that he holed up and wrote every song on what would become his first album For Emma, Forever Ago. It is perhaps because of these extreme circumstances that his first album remains the most revered and sentimental, with a palpable sense of emptiness and longing.

Iver continued to tap into the demand for such beautiful, airy folktronica through his second, self-titled album. 22, a Million, however, went for a completely different feel. With peculiarly stylized song titles like “21 M♢♢N WATER” and “____45_____”, Vernon makes no mistake of showing his fans he is going in a different direction. The move was, in some cases, unwise “The underlying music strains for surprise at every turn, using incongruous rhythms, fleets of wheezing saxophone, and song structures as nonlinear as a stream of water making its way across rough pavement,” wrote Spencer Kornhaber in a review for The Atlantic, “…the distance between Vernon and the listener sometimes is too great to be overcome.”

The last 45 seconds of “21 M♢♢N WATER,” in particular, are enough to make even the most dedicated fans rip their earbuds out in disgust. Noises similar to Shelley Duvall’s blood-curdling shriek in The Shining are layered over what sounds like a troubled toddler who was left alone with a kazoo and megaphone. The noises continue far beyond a reasonable amount of time for them to be considered stylistic liberties and lend sympathetic to the intentionally unbearable. What once was lyrical coffee shop or perhaps nap-in-the-sunshine type folk music shows an ugly underbelly that frankly, is appalling. Dedicated fans undoubtedly will be shaking their heads in disgust at such a disaster.

The distance between Vernon and the listener sometimes is too great to be overcome.

-Spencer Kornhaber, The Atlantic

“____45_____” is another song Iver took too far. While it isn’t an audiophile’s nightmare, “____45_____” does not seem to fit in with the other songs on the album at all. With a Sinatra-like croon, Vernon harmonizes with layered saxophone and mild synth sounds. Thankfully, there are no screeches or particularly off-putting dissonance in the chords. The song is pleasant enough to listen to… if you don’t pay attention to the words. “Well I been carved in fire… I been caught in fire,” Vernon warbles again… and again… and again. One could argue that the song could have easily been rescued, had there been perhaps ten more words added to the lyrics. Vernon lazily throws in another sentence or two towards the end of the song, but it is perhaps too late to save the already-bored listener from tuning it out completely.

Reviews online have been mixed. More often than not, however, they have leaned towards the positive side of center, applauding Vernon for taking stylistic liberties and going where few folk musicians have gone before. On a poll I posted on Facebook, the majority of responses were also positive.

When asked how they felt about Bon Iver’s new album, 63.6% of respondents selected “It’s Awesome,” 27.3% selected “Meh,” and only 9.1% selected “Don’t Dig It.”

Still, it is notable that over a third of people who once listened (and assumedly liked) his older music were not thrilled.

The encouraging part of 22, a Million is that his old (and, arguably, best) sound shows through in several gleaming moments of brilliance. “29 #Strafford APTS” is flowy and cohesive, pleasantly returning to Vernon’s folk roots. The final song also knocks it out of the park. As Kornhaber aptly noted in the Atlantic: By the time of the closer “00000 Million,” Vernon seems like he might be reconsidering his previous obtuseness. Over simple piano chords, he sings a melody that sounds inspired by American folk standards… while delivering some of the most legible lyrics of his career, reflections on straying from the obvious path in life.

It could be argued that the album is saved by songs like “00000 Million, “ “29 #Strafford APTS” and “666 ʇ” that are reminiscent of his award-winning material but also artfully blend in his new electronic sound.

However, it is unfortunate that the artist should have to save or defend his work at all. Plenty of musicians in Vernon’s genre have produced album upon album with a consistent style and this is undoubtedly the best way to please a fan base. Mumford and Sons is one prominent example. Between three studio albums and several live albums, the folk/rock band has won six Grammy awards and the hearts of millions. An enormous part of forming a fan base is delivering something and then promising to produce more of what they love. It can be unsettling for fans to switch creative directions altogether. Mumford is revered for their ability to continually make music in their own unique style.

It is not impossible, however, for esteemed artists to genre-hop. Internationally renowned DJ Avicii received much unexpected praise for his sudden move to country-electronica from pure electronic dance music. The most famous example of an artist doing this is probably Taylor Swift, the country-sweetheart-turned-global-pop-star. Swift, unlike Vernon, made the shift openly and intentionally. After receiving the Milestone Award from the Academy of Country Music Awards, she thanked her fans profusely and explained her decision. “And so to the country music community, when I told you that I had made a pop album and that I wanted to go explore other genres, you showed me who you are with the grace you accepted that with. I will never forget it,” she said at the event, bidding the genre adieu but inviting her loyal followers to move forward with her. She went on to become one of the biggest names in music across the world.

Bon Iver could have possibly avoided backlash to the album if he had communicated to his fans about the change. Many people, including myself, spent several years waiting for new material before giving up hope altogether when Vernon announced Bon Iver was winding down. Our hopes were raised exponentially upon the announcement of the new album, only to be slightly crushed when seven out of ten songs were not at all what we were expecting. That being said, many loyal fans are prepared to take the change in stride and support Vernon no matter what. The final say on 22, a Million? Go ahead, buy the album, but make sure you preview it for free online first.