Consider Flume, Perth and 22 (OVER S∞∞N); each serving as the respective entryways into each of Bon Iver‘s three studio albums – 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago; 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver and 22, A Million. Flume gently creaks open the door to the cabin in the woods that started it all, all head-voice falsetto and ringing, hollow-bodied guitar strums. Perth cracks the shutters at the break of morning, sunlight seeping in as lithe, wispy electric guitar coos over soundscaped ambience. 22 (OVER S∞∞N), meanwhile, emerges from darkness in a whirr of warped samples, a glitched loop sequence and a sombre, hushed saxophone interlude.
Save for a few key traits – primarily based around figurehead Justin Vernon’s vocal tendencies – there’s not a lot of common ground shared between these three tracks – and, by extension, the albums they lead in. Fundamentally, one could put forward the hypothesis that therein lies the point entirely – Vernon has more or less refused to nestle into any given pigeon-hole during his time in the public eye. Even when taking years between projects, Vernon draws the attention of both his niche within the mainstream and the wider spectrum of alternative music with every move that he makes. The weight of expectation is irrelevant to a project like Bon Iver when one factors in the slate being wiped clean with each release. Just as you think you know all the answers, Vernon is changing the questions.
So, what of 22, A Million; and its place within the Bon Iver canon? For their third LP, Vernon and co. present an explorative study of contrasting raw-nerve human emotion with artificial, robust surroundings. It’s factored into some of the best Bon Iver works in the past – see the mantra-like Blood Bank cut Woods – but to present it as a central focus draws out both stronger ideas and a greater-fulfilled potential. Rarely has Vernon sounded more vulnerable or closer to a breaking point than on 715 – CRΣΣKS, in which his vocals are accompanied only by a gain-heavy vocoder. Rather than dehumanising Vernon’s conviction, it instead presents it with something to break out from; simultaneously working with and against him.
Even when songs have their roots in more organic instrumentation – the piano-oriented closer 00000 Million, the string-laden folk dream-sequence of 29 #Strafford APTS – their surroundings are askew due to the implementation of synthesized textures and digital vocal treatments. It’s as though one is looking at a picture of a serene, quiet location on a screen; only for said screen to flicker and malfunction – not to the extent of derailing it entirely, but recurrent to the point of it factoring into the experience itself. Hell, this analogy can even be applied to the leet-speak song titles – there’s a conventional word or turn of phrase in each, they just happen to be shrouded in bizarre symbols and formatting.
There is a considerable amount to digest and to let marinate while listening to 22, A Million. It’s not the kind of record that immediately lays its cards on the table and wears its heart on its sleeve, as For Emma was; nor is it an equal and opposite reaction to its predecessor, as Bon Iver was. Once again, Bon Iver has created a fascinating instalment in their discography that bears no proper resemblance to its peers. It’s not going to sit well with a great deal of listeners, who will find its darker undertones and more avant-garde leanings to be inaccessible and unsettling. An equal amount will find Vernon’s adventurous experimenting a refreshing reboot of a project that could well have settled into a comfortable groove at any point during its previous two album cycles. Who can say what end of the spectrum you’ll end up in? As far as 22, A Million is concerned, you’ll just have to listen and pick a side. Bon Iver’s revolution will go on with or without you.