After a five-year hiatus since their last album—the Grammy-winning, self-titled Bon Iver—the Wisconsin-based “indie folk” band has returned for an album that is a departure in form, but a triumphant return, in impressionistic songwriting. 22, A Million features otherworldly production and synthesizers that may be off-putting to listeners expecting an album from 2011’s Bon Iver, but make no mistake—the same creators are still present; they’re just using different tools this time around.
“22 (OVER S∞∞N)” starts off the album as a soft introduction to Bon Iver’s new electronic style and frontman Justin Vernon’s nostalgic look on years past. A high-pitch sample of Vernon singing “It might be over soon,” about his failed attempts of soul-searching—even after chipmunk-like pitch modifications—is still teeming with vulnerability and melancholy.
Then, in a more radical 180 than any beginning to an album I’ve ever heard, the second track, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” comes in with an unapologetically crude drum beat that will probably polarize most listeners to awe or hatred. The industrial, factory-like drums are reminiscent of Vernon’s involvement with Kanye West’s 2013 album, Yeezus. Once the song really gets going, Vernon’s vocals are surprisingly powerful and aggressive. Without a doubt, this track will be the single greatest talking point of the album.
On “715 – CRΣΣKS,” the song features nothing but Vernon’s vocals with an autotuning audio codec developed by “Friends” collaborator Francis Starlite (Francis and the Lights) dubbed the “Prismizer.” The song is stripped-down and the vocal effects are somehow both artificial and choral-sounding.
From here on out, the album features a lot more of the airy pianos, comforting guitar lines and reverberating drums that Bon Iver is known for, while the noticeably electronic elements play a backseat role. That’s not to say that they’re entirely gone, it’s just that typical aspects of songs in the electronic genre such as autotune and electronic drum beats are no longer present. With the exception of a 40-second nervous breakdown-like interlude at the end of “21 M♢♢N WATER,” most of the B-sides in this album are more approachable listens. You might start to get the sense that the electronic elements in this album weren’t put in simply for shock value, but that they showcase how Vernon’s collaborations over the last five years have influenced his approach to production and songwriting.
22, A Million is the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next for Bon Iver. Throughout the album, extreme risks are taken that may alienate some fans, but if you stick along for the ride, you will be treated to a chaotic yet beautiful collection of standout tracks.