22, A Million: Bon Iver’s sonic transformation

22, A Million: Bon Iver’s sonic transformation

After five years of silence, Bon Iver, a band centered around the folk writings of Wisconsin native Justin Vernon, has emerged with their most experimental album since the group’s inception in 2007. Dramatically shifting from the minimalist and instrumentally barren sounds of their past two records (For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008 and Bon Iver in 2011), the highly anticipated 22, A Million brings about a whole new realm of audio and visual aesthetics for Justin Vernon.

Though somewhat criticized for his arguably blatant inspiration to pursue a blend of electronic/folk music from the likes of James Blake and Sufjan Stevens, Vernon still delivers a thoroughly unique take on modernized folk music. Vernon’s newfound experimental style is apparent instantly, with cryptic song names and hectic, symbol-based album cover immediately dictating his eccentric intentions for the project. Since the announcement of its track-listing, coupled with lyric videos for the singles “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” the musical peculiarity of 22, A Million has made the project a hot topic in the music scene. Contrary to the simplistic and traditional style of Vernon’s old work, which consisted of his own vocals, guitar and occasionally bass and percussion, the tracks on 22, A Million boast highly diverse and powerful instrumentalization. Using personalized synth hardware, a vast array of instruments (including a small string section) and an innumerable amount of intricately placed effects and vocal samples, Vernon has boldly revolutionized Bon Iver’s sound into gorgeously composed chaos.

Even with the radical instrumental upheaval on this record, Vernon’s lyricism, wrought with themes of loss and anxiety, helps give 22, A Million his music’s familiarly beautiful yet bittersweet vibe. In the midst of the album’s instrumentally robust commotion, Vernon occasionally surfaces with the straightforward moments of raw beauty that made up Bon Iver tunes of years past on tracks like “29 #Strafford APTS” and “8 (circle).” Other than those brief instances of clarity, 22, A Million maintains a bombastic presence in its unpredictable odyssey of sound. The track’s pacings mesmerizingly switch throughout the record; the fiercely rolling beat of “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” jumps quickly into the alluring autotune acapella of “715 – CRΣΣKS,” again shifting suddenly into the elegant piano opening of “33 GOD,” all the while maintaining the listener’s anticipation.

At a concise duration of 34 minutes, 22, A Million rarely meanders away from its attention grabbing coherence. The only major flaw appears in the annoyingly random (and far too drawn out) conclusion of “21 M♢♢N WATER.” This impressive consistency results in the absence of any particular stand-out tracks, allowing for a constantly intriguing listening experience. Considering Vernon’s results in his dauntless leap from Bon Iver’s original style, 22, A Million proudly presents itself as a potential candidate for album of the year, with its astoundingly beautiful pandemoniums of sound encapsulating underlying emotions of insecurity and depression.

Score: 8/10

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