22, A Million
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
It might not be forever ago, but it has been five years since Justin Vernon released a self-titled album under his Bon Iver alias. That album expanded upon the rustic sound of his well-received debut (2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago) and turbo-boosted Vernon’s transformation from an unknown making a breakup album in a secluded cabin to everybody’s darling.
The aftershocks of such a seismic change apparently caused the hiatus, as did Vernon’s desire to find new ways of expressing himself. 22, A Million might get labeled as experimental, what with its strange song titles, copious samples, and electronic manipulation of voices and instruments. Not until the fourth song on the album does anything resembling a traditional structure show up, and even that track (“33 “GOD””) soon dissolves into industrial clatter.
But Vernon still holds down the center with his expressive vocals, which whipsaw from pained falsetto to furious groan at a moment’s notice. And though the methods might be unconventional, the emotions expressed are still riveting. “715 – CREEKS” is a kind of Auto-Tuned a cappella effort but delivers the same intense relationship angst as “Skinny Love” did on the debut. Vernon also balances compellingly odd moments, like the shards of saxophone coming from all angles on “____45_____,” with others more orienting, such as the synth power balladry of “8 (Circle).”
Vernon still puts words together like unwieldy jigsaw pieces, resulting in mouthfuls like “I’m unorphaned in our northern lights/ Dedicoding every daemon.” Yet almost every song also contains moments of lyrical clarity amidst the gobbledygook. On the gorgeous album-closer “00000 Million,” he sings, “I worry about a worn path/ And I wander off just to come back home.” 22, A Million occasionally confronts and challenges with its willful weirdness, but Bon Iver can still locate that lonely cabin, if only in spirit, when Vernon really wants to dig deep.