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Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Discussion in 'Article Discussion' started by Melody Bot, Dec 16, 2016.

  1. Melody Bot

    Your friendly little forum bot. Staff Member

    This article has been imported from for discussion. All of the forum rules still apply.

    The first time I heard 22, A Million, the long-awaited third album from Bon Iver, I hated it. To my ears, it sounded like a formless mess, devoid of any clear highlights (at least on the level of the best songs from Justin Vernon’s previous albums) and frequently undone by head-scratching production choices. Granted, I was listening to a shitty rip of a shitty stream that had leaked to the internet months in advance. I’d also had my expectations sent through the roof by live recordings of the band’s full playthrough of the record at this year’s Eaux Claires music festival. Even an amateur audience recording of the performance captured the magic of the new songs and made it sound like 22, A Million—despite arriving on five years’ worth of built up anticipation—was going to live up to my every expectation. Hearing the same songs in studio form didn’t hit me the same way, and I spent months considering 22, A Million my biggest disappointment of the year as a result. Even after the album officially released in September and I finally got to hear a full-quality version, I heard it as a distinct step down from its two predecessors.

    As I’ve learned in the months that have passed since, though, 22, A Million is neither a record meant for first impressions nor a record meant for the season in which I first heard it. This record leaked at the end of August, during summer’s dying days, and absolutely zero things about 22, A Million say “summer.” Where 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver sounded right at home on muggy summer nights, 22, A Million is meant for cold seclusion. My enjoyment of this album seemed to grow with every drop of a degree on the thermometer. By the time the first snow of the year fell, I had charted the full journey from “hate” to “disappointed” to “indifferent” to “grudging appreciation” and finally to “love.” It’s one of the oddest adventures I can ever recall taking with an album.

    That distinction is fitting, since 22, A Million is something of an oddity on its own. (For proof, just try reading the track listing.) Everything from the weird song titles to the symbol-heavy album cover to the glitchy production seems designed to purposefully alienate listeners—or at very least, challenge them. The songs themselves are often challenging as well, veering further from the wintry cabin folk of For Emma, Forever Ago than Vernon has ever gone with one of his own projects. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” for instance, sounds more like Vernon’s work on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus than anything he has previously put on a Bon Iver or Volcano Choir record.

    I firmly believe Justin Vernon has one of the greatest, most distinctive voices in the history of recorded music. His lower chest voice register is solid, capable of achieving deep booming baritone and bass ranges, but it’s with his falsetto that Vernon can level you. That facet of Vernon’s voice has always been his not-so-secret weapon. On For Emma, Forever Ago, it sounded almost otherworldly while still somehow conveying a heartbroken fragility that was thoroughly human. And while Bon Iver, Bon Iver expanded the sonic palette and pushed toward more ambitious arrangements, there was still a definite focus on Vernon’s falsetto and the melodies it carried. Looking back at my first few months with 22, A Million, I think the thing that I’ve struggled with the most is the way Vernon’s voice figures into these songs. Because of the push in a more experimental direction, it figures that much of this record would be less singularly focused on voice and melody than Vernon’s folk era. Add the record’s production—which frequently spits Justin’s voice through a vocoder (“715 – CR∑∑KS”), layers it with effects-laden harmonies (“29 #Strafford APTS”), pitches it up into chipmunk voice territory (“22 (OVER S∞∞N)”), or entirely overwhelms it in background noise (“21 M◊◊N WATER”)—and Vernon’s gorgeous falsetto only gets a few moments to take center stage.

    On my early listens, I was especially thrown off by “29 #Strafford APTS.” On the live recording of the Eaux Claires show, “Strafford” sounded like it had the potential to be one of the greatest Bon Iver songs ever. With a gorgeous falsetto hook and a steady acoustic rhythm that made it sound like a not-too-distant cousin to For Emma’s “Blindsided,” “Strafford” was the song I was most looking forward to hearing in studio format. But where the live version was more or less straightforward, the studio version is layered so deeply in harmonies, pitch-shifted vocals, and distracting production flourishes (there is a deliberate glitch in the final minute that sounds like the tape cutting out) that it lost the subtle, unassuming beauty of the live version.

    At least, that’s what I thought at first.

    The more I listened to 22, A Million, though, the more I began to see what Vernon was going for. Made in the wake of a period of crisis, anxiety, depression, and confusion in Vernon’s life, 22, A Million embraces the beauty of being unsure. The first lines of the record are “It might be over soon”—as in, “the way I’m feeling right now might not last forever.” It’s the perfect start to the record, a record that sees Vernon on a journey to find himself again. In that context, all of the production choices—the chopped up or pitched vocals, the disjointed way in which some of the songs are stitched together, etc.—makes a lot more sense. These songs are literally the sound of a broken man putting himself together. Famously, For Emma, For Emma ago was the sound of the same thing. However, where For Emma found Vernon broken in the wake of a breakup, the wounds he’s healing on 22, A Million are more complex and more difficult to bandage. It’s fitting, then, that the sound of the record is more complex and less welcoming. While the production choices might have turned me off at first, they now strike me as a beautiful and vital part of the canvas. For example, surely a song like “715 – CR∑∑KS” wouldn’t ache quite the way it does if it were stripped of the vocoder and performed in a more traditional, folky arrangement.

    With all of that said, there are still moments here where Vernon sounds like his old self. Though “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” is built on the foundation of a glitchy, chopped up vocal loop, Vernon still lets his falsetto be the eye of the storm. As the opener of the record, the song provides the perfect midway point between the comfortable familiarity of what Bon Iver has been in the past and the more adventurous, sonically experimental direction of this album. Songs like “666 ʇ” and “8 (circle),” meanwhile, don’t sound so far off from some of the material that made up the back half of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. And the album’s closer, “00000 Million,” feels like a homecoming, a piano-led beauty built like a church hymn. “If it’s harmed me, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm me, I’ll let it in,” Vernon sings, accepting that his troubles might not be over, but that he can’t run away from them either. It’s not a clean, neat resolution to the journey that he embarked upon in “22 (OVER S∞∞N).” But in real life, few things are clean and neat, and this album, with its evident scars, jagged edges, and meandering lost-and-found theme, reflects that fact perfectly.

    JM95 and Chris Prindle like this.
  2. heymynameisjoe

    when the days have no numbers Prestigious

    great read.
    Craig Manning likes this.
  3. Zip It Chris

    Be kind; everyone is on their own journey.

    Great write up...I'm still having trouble with this album as all the little 'extras' are more distracting to the sound than the bones of the song itself. I still put him in the category of Iron and Wine, or more recently Billie Marten, which are sounds I prefer regarding the stripped down, ethereal sounds. Bon Iver is definitely one to appreciate for his talents, but I just can't get past the 'distractions' as I see them...if that makes sense.
  4. Ska Senanake


    zmtr, Guys Named Todd and dylan like this.
  5. Ryan G

    Moderator Moderator

    Really agree with your thoughts on the album and have had a similar relationship with it myself.
    Craig Manning likes this.
  6. Steeeve Perry


    I really dug this straight away. Except Deathbreast. Still don't enjoy it.
    Over Soon, Creeks, God, Strafford, 8 circle, 000 Million.These songs are among his very best.
    Craig Manning likes this.
  7. TheoW593


    What a killer read.
    Craig Manning and Jason Tate like this.
  8. Quijiba


    couldn't agree more. Glad someone took the time to write about this album. It honestly was awful to me at first, but being that its bon iver I kept listening until it fast became one of the best albums I heard all year. I love this album to death now
    Craig Manning and Jason Tate like this.
  9. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    I definitely feel that way about Iron & Wine. I enjoyed his stuff more fleshed out to a point (really liked The Shepherd's Dog, liked most of Kiss Each Other Clean) but he lost me entirely on the last album. I think Vernon has been able to build up his sound without losing the intimacy and beauty of the more stripped down material.
    Chris Prindle likes this.
  10. Ska Senanake


    Give Ghost on Ghost another shot. It actually has a few great songs. Joy and Baby Center Stage are very good.
  11. Ryan

    Might be Spider-Man...

    I love this record, probably my favorite one of his.
    Jason Tate and Steeeve Perry like this.
  12. Huh, I've had the opposite reaction (I've liked the record less and less with every listen). It just seems bereft of actual songwriting - regardless of intent, I just don't find it to be a very listenable or engaging record. Reading this though has me wanting to listen to it again... maybe it'll make a fan out of me yet.
  13. Raj710


    'challenging' is the term you use when your favorite artist makes a shitty track and you can't accept it.

    Album is garbage lol
    BigMouth likes this.
  14. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    Not sure what you mean by this. What do you see as being "actual songwriting" that is absent from this record?

    Thanks for your input, random dude!
    zmtr likes this.
  15. Steeeve Perry


    I've heard the "songwriting" complaint. Is it because these tracks don't follow a standard song structure? Or because they don't build enough in some peoples' opinion?
    Originally my worry was that Bon Iver had gone for a 'challenging' record which sometimes seems like a cop out to me. An easy way to say "you just don't get it" if the album turns out bad. Especially since it's not an overly new idea to put out a glitchy electronic record.
    When I started playing it I was actually happy to realise there was nothing overly challenging about this record. The songwriting and melodies are pretty easy to grab onto. The glitchiness seemed somewhat tame compared with the Kid A-type record it had been billed as. It doesn't have choruses but I'd argue it's just as easy to sing/hum along with as his previous albums. And the production? I actually prefer it to BI BI which seemed quiet to the point of a difficult listen at times.
  16. Kerrbs

    Let's go Cavs! Prestigious

    This This This! I hated it at first and then found his comment about Kid A. I have quickly found this to be one of my favorites of the year and I keep coming back and hearing new things to love it more.
  17. ReginaPhilange

    Trusted Prestigious

    lol no. "Challenging" accurately describes this album, and plenty of other albums that I've grown to love.

    Great review @Craig Manning. I was blown away when I watched the Eaux Claires show. I know a lot of people who took a while to come around to it though.
    Craig Manning likes this.
  18. theredline

    Trusted Supporter

    This is one of those things where either you like it or don't. You could study it and analyze it to death but sometimes there isn't a quantifiable reason. Either it hits or it doesn't. Personally I love this type of stuff so from the get go it's really the only record of his that I've liked.

    One of my gripes with reviews sometimes (but not this one) or people responding to reviews (definitely this one) is opinion as fact. You can say you don't like it. You can even define why. But don't say is a garbage record. A lot of people will beg to differ. Every time.
  19. Matt Chylak

    I can always be better, so I'll always try. Supporter

    The thing is that his songwriting's pretty straightforward throughout the album, hueing pretty closely to classic folk templates on about half the tracks (22, 715, 33, 29, 666, 8, 1000000). It's just run through a lot of filtering, and the outros go in off-kilter directions. This album is way easier to digest than BI, BI (in my opinion).
    somethingliketj likes this.
  20. SuNDaYSTaR

    Regular Prestigious

    Oh my gawd, I know, rite?
  21. somethingliketj

    And that's why you always leave a note.

    I am SO glad you made it to "love" on this one. I had a feeling you'd come around. ;-)
    I loved this record more on first listen than I did with BI,BI (with the exception of Holocene because, I mean, come on) and love it more each time I hear it. Putting the vinyl on, dimming the lights and reading through the booklet was such a good listening experience the day it came out. AOTY.
  22. somethingliketj

    And that's why you always leave a note.

    I agree with this. He sounds incredibly confident the entire record, and yet at the same time, so pained. It's a beaut, Clark.
  23. Lucas27


    Awesome review. My relationship with this album is weird. I didn't dig “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” when I first heard it and saw a lot of Kid A comparisons when this album came out. I figured it would just go over my head so I didn't even listen for a month. Then when I sat down and listened to it I loved the entire thing instantly, including the first single. It wasn't nearly as strange as I'd expected it to be. I don't really like music that I have to "appreciate" before I can enjoy it (a.k.a. a lot of Radiohead's stuff for me) but I never felt that way with this record. I actually agree with the above poster that aspects of this record are even easier to digest than BI, BI.

    BI, BI is one of my favorite records so this doesn't reach that level for me. But I'd put it firmly in the middle of BI, BI and For Emma. The man can do no wrong.
    Craig Manning likes this.
  24. Steeeve Perry


    Holocene is still his best song. I've actually found I LOVE four songs from each of his albums (and like others of course).
    Flume, Skinny Love, For Emma, Re: Stacks; Perth, Holocene, Calgary, Beth/Rest; 22 Over Soon, 33 God, 8 Circle, 00000 Million
    somethingliketj likes this.
  25. Well, there's just a lack of overall structure that ranges from tolerable ("Over Soon") to infuriating (most of the record, especially the latter half). There are small hooks in each song, but they're too scattered for me. It's a fine, intangible, and entirely subjective line but Bon Iver crossed it on this record. I may understand the intent of constantly interrupting songs with glitchy elements, but I just don't like the execution.