Justin Vernon was a man lost in the world. It’s been nearly a decade since the singer famously isolated himself in a tiny cabin in upper Wisconsin for three months, binge watching “Northern Exposure” and fighting his depression with a guitar as snow fell silently outside. When he emerged, Vernon gifted the indie folk world with his critically acclaimed 2008 album “For Emma, Forever Ago,” as well as his new moniker, Bon Iver (a play on “bon hiver,” or “good winter” in French). But Vernon didn’t just have a good winter — he produced the sound of the season. His heavy use of echoing falsetto, strumming acoustics and layered voices mirrored the mystifying stillness of northern climates, where everything is calm but not necessarily peaceful. “For Emma, Forever Ago” was soon followed by “Blood Bank” in 2009 and the collaborative effort “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” in 2011, both of which expanded upon the magically disorienting folk that Vernon curated while embracing the cold.
In the five years since “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” the snow that gave Vernon his sound has long since melted. The evidence is apparent when listening to his other musical endeavors with The Shouting Matches, Kanye West and Francis and The Lights: Vernon seamlessly flows between balmy bar-blues, the raging fires of “Yeezus” and the warm, smile-inducing song “Friends” as if he were DJing the ultimate summer road trip. But where there once was snow are uncovered remnants of the self-conflict he originally dealt with in Wisconsin, and so Vernon returns once more to Bon Iver with a fresh take on his inner dialogue in the new album “22, A Million,” which was released last Friday. Similarly to “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” Vernon is joined by a rotating cast of like-minded band mates to help bring his sonic visions to life — but fans of the previous albums better come prepared with an open mind, because Bon Iver’s folk-induced winter is truly over.
“22, A Million” is an obviously different sound for Bon Iver from the outset. Where their albums once began with foggy scene-setting via eerie strings and atmospheric choirs, the first song here, “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” paints a different picture. It’s high-pitch, overlaid vocals and broken stretches of noise convey a strange message to listeners: this is an experimental album above all else. Yet it’s also surprisingly upbeat in an optimistic way, providing that same sense of warmth we’ve seen more recently from Vernon’s side projects. The next song, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” confirms these notions by taking the same exploratory tones and adding a deep, rumbling electronic base that underlines Vernon’s necessary announcement of his “unorphanage” at the end of the track. “33 ‘GOD’” highlights this statement with a chorus of rock and roll drums and angelic ambiance, and as if the first beam of summer sunlight had just broken through the clouds, listeners know at this point that Vernon has finally found peace of mind.
For this reason, “22, A Million” already comes across as a success from “33 ‘GOD'” onward. It feels as if Vernon and the rest of Bon Iver constantly have Wisconsin in their rear-view mirror as they move through the album, producing a variety of new sounds while trying to remain true to their past. Songs like “666 ʇ” and “21 M♢♢N WATER” follow “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” as examples of a folk-less Bon Iver that is more optimistic, where Vernon can create an electronic chorus out of the lyrics “I’ve laughed about it” in reference to his earlier struggles. In contrast, standout tracks “29 #Strafford APTS,” “8 (circle)” and “00000 Million” are all brief (but very welcomed) return trips to the outskirts of where Vernon once flirted with folk music, and satisfy anyone craving for the Bon Iver of years past. The only glaring flaw on the album is the second half of “21 M♢♢N WATER,” which is presumably a contemporary take on the wild ending of their previous song “The Wolves,” but the slow build-up of various instruments never reaches a climax in this edition.
In the end, “22, A Million” is a beautiful modern-day album for everyone, but is especially rewarding for those who have followed Vernon and the evolution of Bon Iver over the years. The album’s closer, “00000 Million,” is a poignant conclusion to the band’s current era, where Vernon seems to indicate that his newfound happiness stems from a forlorn acceptance of the past: “If it’s harming, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm me, I let it in.” And with that, the tiny winter cabin finally dips beyond the horizon line as Justin Vernon turns his head towards the future.
Benj Salkind is a junior philosophy major. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @benjsalkind