22, A Million: A Masterclass in Evolution

After five long years, it’s here. Justin Vernon has finally released another Bon Iver record. My excitement was palpable as my head popped off my pillow this morning. I sat on my deck with my morning coffee, anticipating when the mailman would show up with my copy of 22, A Million on wax (shout out to him for showing up at 9:45am). As I ran down my staircase to meet him, he must have thought I was expecting a lost family fortune as I almost ripped it out of his hands.

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As I stripped back the packaging of my new record, there was a sense of relief. To explain what Bon Iver has meant to me in the past is quite an affair. Discovering For Emma, Forever Ago was a turning point in my musical journey. This record help me realize the power of subtlety in music. My freshman year of college, although a brief experience, involved me listening to it like clockwork every night as I went to sleep. I was enamored with the quiet pain present throughout. Maybe I felt some sort of connection to the pain Vernon was crooning about. Maybe I need to stop thinking like a psychiatrist. That’s your call. Regardless, shortly after, the self-titled record was released, and boy was I ecstatic. To me, that record is everything I want out of a perfect autumn record. The beauty of that piece of music cannot be overstated or denied. It has this wonderful quality that spurs my creative and wandering spirit. Compared to the debut, the self-titled was a musically expansive record that immersed the listener in beautiful energy. If there was one record that gets the most spin time on my turntable, it’s this one. Between the beautiful music present throughout the entirety of the record and the wonderful visuals of the “Holecene” music video, it may just be my favorite record ever created. But alas, Justin Vernon kept us all waiting on pins and needles for another taste of Bon Iver after this record.

When five years pass between an artist releasing new music, expectations tend to be lofty and somewhat unfounded. Music is very much a personal expression of experience and desire, and we have no idea what headspace Vernon has been in for the past five years. What we do know is that he kept himself busy. Between starting his own imprint under record label Jagjaguwar, a 2013 release with side-project Volcano Choir (a must-listen for any and all fans of Bon Iver), a collaboration with independent alternative hip hop artist Astronautalis, and a reunion of sorts with The Shouting Matches, Vernon certainly hasn’t fallen out of the music scene. But, after being named Best New Artist at the Grammy’s in 2012, it seemed as if he was walking away from Bon Iver at the height of its hype.

Now, this brings us to 22, A Million. To me, this is what Kid A was to Radiohead. Is it a departure from the beautiful soundscape that was the self-titled record? Yes. Is it still wonderfully authentic to the spirit that is Bon Iver? You better fucking believe it. As I heard the singles, I was excited, but not blown away (a fellow 1A writer and I had this discussion previously. Hey James, thanks for your patience on my first post. I stopped being an asshole and got my shit together). I knew that this was going to be a record meant to be experienced in a single sitting.

Goddamn was I right.

22, A Million was worth the wait. Justin Vernon, you’ve done it again.

After fully digesting this record throughout the day (I promise you, I haven’t taken it off my turntable or off of my phone when I’m away from my turntable), I’ve come to realize one thing; a similarity that might just surprise you at first. Justin Vernon is very much like Kanye West. Both use the voice as the ultimate instrument. Whether it be the extreme vocal layering, the masterful use of auto-tune while still preserving his wonderful vocal tone, or even extreme pitch shifting of a vocal sample, Vernon can make an entire song using just his voice. He does just that on “715 – CRΣΣKS,” a track that truly stands out despite being so minimal. In fact, Vernon tends to layer vocals over each other in just about every track on this record. But, the few times he decides to strip things back and remove the majority of his vocal layers, the impact is that much more powerful (see “8 (circle)). Simply put, Vernon finds a way to create a vast layer of sound over the entirety of this record using the human voice, and that alone sets him apart from his indie counterparts.

What really sticks with me is the lack of a track by track impression I get with this record. As I sit at my desk, I attempt to look over and see where the needle of my record player is in hopes of figuring out which song is playing, and then I give up and just fall into the beauty that is surrounding me. This record is an experience. Between the layered harmonies, the stripped back meets electronic instrumentals, the incredible dynamic range of the project, and even moments of what seems to just be noise (let’s be real, Vernon has been doing this since day one, but that’s another discussion for another time), Bon Iver has created another beautiful piece of artistry that will be looked back on as a masterclass in musical evolution.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to flip over my copy of this record and listen to it start to finish once more…. As I will be for the foreseeable future. Cheers, Justin Vernon. Thank you for existing in the light that you do.

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