Piercingly short and stunningly vast, Bon Iver’s new album, “22, A Million,” is incredible. In the five years since the release of their last album, Bon Iver has transformed their sound and scope, resulting in their most ambitious release yet.
The Grammy-award-winning band, originally introduced to the music world in 2007 as an indie folk group, now transcends both genre and categorization.
Led and founded by singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, the man Kanye West named as his “favorite living artist,” Bon Iver has only continued to add to its impressive repertoire. After independently releasing its debut album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” and reaching mainstream success with its eponymous sophomore release, Vernon and Bon Iver triumphantly return with a third body of work, combining experimentation and self-realization.
“22, A Million” lives in a world of loss and learning to let go, revolving around themes of religion and introspection. It trades the folk sounds and traditional song titles familiar to long-time Bon Iver fans in favor of stranger, undecipherable ones. Other artists have failed and disappeared from contemporary music’s collective conscience when attempting such daring reinventions in their careers, but, like some of its legendary predecessors, Bon Iver has not let its ambitious reach exceed its capabilities.
Despite undergoing such a dramatic change, Bon Iver still manages to stay true to itself artistically in the simultaneously cogent and alien work — alternating between soft ballads and broodingly cryptic chants, sometimes acoustic, often electronic.
Particularly notable is the use of the “Messina,” a device created by Vernon and his sound engineer, Chris Messina. Heard throughout the album, the Messina records an instrumentalist’s melody and ruptures it into several harmonies in real time, contrapuntally stacking sounds to create the otherworldly atmosphere that characterizes “22, A Million.” This is most evident in the penultimate track “____45_____,” a track in which a horn section wavers between staccato and legato melodies in complex, jarring harmonies.
The album boasts awe-inspiring songwriting with breathtaking lyrics underneath a musical guise of chaos and dissonance. In “33 ‘GOD’,” a song that capitalizes on Vernon’s fixation on numerology — the track lasts 3:33 and epitomizes the album’s religious theme — the lyric video opens with a passage from Psalm 22.
Vernon croons, “If the calm would allow, Then I would just be floating to you now,” amidst crashing drums and a thumping bass. Moments like these ghost the 10-track album, haunting listeners with enigmatic and beautiful lyrical and musical structure. Bon Iver’s album is brilliant, but it may be difficult for some listeners to access its brilliance — “22, A Million” is intentionally tenuous and dense.
Described in a press release as, “part love letter, part final resting place of two decades of searching for self-understanding like a religion … and the inner-resolution of maybe never finding that understanding,” the album searches and searches, and succeeds in discovering that there is perhaps nothing to find but achieving peace, nonetheless. In “21 M♢♢N WATER.” Vernon whispers, “Now I’m more than I am when we started.” The lyric’s delivery is a reflection of the complexity, contingency and uncertainty of Bon Iver’s message. Yet to Justin Vernon and his band, this conclusion is not only inevitable,but also acceptable and even desirable: “If it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in,” he sings in “00000 Million,” the album’s finale.
Bon Iver has returned, undoubtedly stronger than ever, redefining its popular and critical perceptions with “22, A Million.” The album is less than 35 minutes long — only one of its songs, “8 (circle),” plays past five minutes — but feels much longer with its gorgeously confusing and dense musical symbolism.
Its sonic and lyrical landscape is vast, covering the breadth of life and self, often escaping its avatar of the album while maintaining its barest, truest core character. The album’s spiritual reach extends even beyond the magnitude of the album title. “22, A Million” may be brief but is truly an album that will stay with listeners long after the music has been shut off.
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