22, A Million opens in a languid way with the single 22 (OVER S∞∞n), Vernon’s voice edging in through an electronic drone and a high-pitched refrain of “it might be over soon”. The sound might have transformed dramatically, but Bon Iver’s lyrics swell with halted images and stuttered glimpses as they have done throughout the previous two albums. “And then I draw and ear on you / So I can speak into the silence” sings Vernon, perhaps referring to the end of Bon Iver’s four-year silence. The track samples Mahalia Jackson’s iconic performance of How I Got Over, a gospel hymn famously performed in 1963 shortly before Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The track itself seems to sparkle with it’s own dawn, boldly stretching out of the guttural electronics into carefully auto-tuned harmonies, forming an orchestral opening that opens into the themes of transition, searching, isolation and spirituality which run throughout 22, A Million. In it’s middle section, the track features a melancholy saxophone solo, somewhat grounding a song which is otherwise so vastly different from the Bon Iver of albums past in an earthy instrumental style that we have come to expect.
10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ marches in as the second track in a flurry of pounding drums, beating as an electronic haze crackles underneath; undoing the definition and blurring the defiance of the song. “Well I’ll wrap you up / And I take it by the touch” sings Vernon as the track reaches it’s climax, the auto-tune warping around the words and pulling them out of the chaos of the music beneath. The song revolves around delicious moments of silence, creating a sense of flux that echoes aurally between quiet and loud as well as forceful and ethereal. The opening of the third track, 715 – CRΣΣKS, follows the same melody as Vernon’s 2011 collaboration with James Blake, Fall Creek Boys Choir. A quick dissection reveals that this song is perhaps the most embedded in Bon Iver as an artistic persona; 715 is the area code for the region of Wisconsin from which Vernon hails, while the vocals are recorded through the Messina, an instrument devised by Vernon’s own studio engineer, which allows a melody to be instantly split into harmony. The song itself is tantalisingly slow, always lingering on the last note while longing for the next; once again dwelling on silence but in a vastly different manner to the chaos of the previous track; where silence had once been a respite, it serves in 715 – CRΣΣKS as a space for reflection and anticipation.
33 “GOD”, lasting three minutes and 33 seconds, released 33 days before the release of 22, A Million, clearly plays a pivotal role in the character of the album. 33, acknowledged as the age Jesus was at his death, foreshadows the themes of searching and spirituality that dominate the song, the Paolo Nutini sample “I find God and religions too” only reinforcing this. Indeed, 33 features a wide range of samples, which comes as little surprise when considering Vernon’s close artistic relationship with Kanye West, to whom he has been a regular collaborator and muse. Vernon, like Kanye, appears continuously throughout this record to push the boundaries of the ability of the human voice, naturally, but also in it’s highly engineered state. The auto-tune that presides over the vocals on this album are stripped back slightly throughout 33, as Vernon’s lyricism reveals a duality in theme, one half full of spiritual questionings and philosophical concepts such as “when we leave this room it’s gone”, while the other half treads along the lines of a fractured domestic relationship with bitter, emotive lines such as:
“I didn’t need you that night,
Not gonna need you anytime,
Was gonna take it as it goes,
I could go forward in the light,
Well I better fold my clothes.”
Musically it seems closer perhaps to what we have previously expected from Bon Iver – perhaps not in the sense of strumming acoustic guitars, but certainly a swelling, euphoric rise of instrumentation that seems more grounded in analogue rather than the electronic soundscape we have thus far experienced. This return to an earthier sound is continued through 29 #Strafford APTS, an understated, delicate track in which the acoustic melody can be heard and the auto-tune is reduced to a minimal amount. When Vernon reaches into the upper reaches of falsetto the sound quality breaks down, creating a sense of engineered flaw. 666ß appears to also be a part of this understated middle section of the album, fading in slowly with electronic droplets of sound which hover like raindrops underneath the vocals. A crescendo of drums builds, eventually indistinguishable from the engineered vocals with their refrain of “bit-by-bit, “bit-by-bit”, trudging on with a sense of quiet certainty. 21 MààN WATER is where 22, A Million seems to reach its ethereal height, with a quiet ringing and distorted vocal sound bites underpinning the drawn-out vocals. Most of the lyrics are indistinguishable, especially towards the end of the track where they are consumed by layer upon layer of fragmented noise until an electronic ringing, reminiscent of a mournful saxophone, dominates the song; creating a wonderfully quiet and introspective moment that seems to break through the disorientation of the rest of the album.
8 (circle) is dominated by earthy vocals; Vernon sings the bulk of the song out of his traditional falsetto, injecting an honest, soulful inflection into the lyricism.
“Say nothing of my fable, no
What on earth is left to come
Who’s agonized and gnawed through it all
I’m underneath your tongue.”
Visceral imagery here claws it’s way from underneath the breathy melody.
The album comes full circle to it’s conclusion in 00000 Million, an understated track characterised by it’s simple piano instrumentation and quiet melody, offering a form of resolution to the hushed turmoil of the rest of the record. “I worried bout rain and I worried bout lightning / But I watched them off, to the light of the morning” cries Vernon, allowing his lyrics to offer a conclusion that is built upon patience and acceptance. 22, A Million may sometimes appear to be an album fraught with questions and tensions, but underneath it all lies a quiet sense of peace, found in the pauses and the breakdowns of sound, pushing the boundaries of what can be offered emotionally by music even when distinguishable meaning. 22, A Million evokes an emotional response, a sonic response, an intellectual response, without saying anything conclusive at all, and in that lies it’s magic.