BeatRoute Magazine is a monthly arts and entertainment paper with a predominant focus on music – local, independent or otherwise. The paper started in June 2004 and continues to provide a healthy dose of perversity while exercising rock ‘n’ roll ethics.
musicreviews Bon Iver 22, A Million Jagjaguwar Records Justin Vernon, or Bon Iver, is an endlessly memeable cultural character. From the now self-parody narrative of Justin Vernon retreating to an isolated cabin in the woods to record For Emma Forever Ago (2009), to his upset Grammy win and the resultant “who the heck is Bonny Bear?” backlash. The weight of expectation plays heavily into a major music release, but few artists with as much mainstream success seem to be as dedicated to move beyond what has driven their success, as Bon Iver. Folks who pine for the passionate guitar-folk of tracks like “Skinny Love” and “Lump Sum” were somewhat left in the dust for the misty and layered second record, the sultry, Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011), but it’s hard to lament the change too much. That said, the more low-tempo, atmosphere-centric tonality that characterizes Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and carries on into 22, A Million doesn’t come entirely out of left field. Vernon has released two records under his own name, the second of which, the wispy Hazeltons (2006) features some of the same vocal doubling that would go on to characterize Bon Iver. The long-winded, post-rock inspired Volcano Choir, and specifically their 2013 record Repave, also pushed Vernon’s penchant for experimentation. What seems to separate Bon Iver from Vernon’s catalogue is one thing: Vernon’s voice. Falsetto vocals, creative auto-tune, and beautiful, but obfuscatory lyrics permeate all stages of Bon Iver’s discography, and true-to-form, on this new release, vocals are somehow even more prescient. The lead up to the release of 22, A Million has done the record a palpable disservice. The unpronounceable tracklist, ambiguous title, and Vernon’s obnoxiously public bromance with hiphop Godhead Kanye West manifested a disingenuous narrative of ‘Bon Iver goes electronic.’ But that is not what 22, A Million sounds like. Instrumentally, the record is divergent from its predecessors, especially in its earlier tracks, but it never strays tonally from what has been established. Opening cut and early release “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” opens with what sounds like a lo-fi vocal loop, with a cute auto-tune sample suggesting ‘it might be over soon.’ It’s a unique and gripping introduction, but as soon as Vernon’s falsetto vocals begin spewing pleasant, but incomprehensible lyrics and a disaffected electric guitar accented by floating horns enter the soundscape, the track reveals itself unapologetically Bon Iver. This cut, and the rhythmic, compressed, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T” that follows are among the most sample-driven songs. The latter’s squelchy drum loop is possibly the most ostentatious movement for the entire duration. Not to say that the smaller movements are boring, but there are moments that are staged a bit like adult contemporary. There is a softness and a smoothness that ques accessibility. “8 (circle)” is perhaps the best example, a track that opens with an airy ‘90s vintage synth, flute, and some delay-heavy snare rims. It borders on cheesy, but holds onto a horn-fronted swagger as it builds. The track also holds a tonal and melodic similarity to Frank Ocean’s perfect “Thinking About You,” which serves as a reminder of Vernon’s hip hop connections, without ever getting his feet too wet. The closest Bon Iver gets to stepping out of his own skin is the strangely affecting “715 – CREEKS.” Vernon’s vocals are multiplied and pitched up and down to create robotic harmonies with himself. It works to such great effect, that the relatively clean piano that opens “33 “GOD” immediately thereafter feels a little awkward, especially when the cringe-worthy lyric “I’d be happy as hell if you stayed for tea” jumps out early in the song. This track eventually redeems itself when a fast and complex drum track breaks the rhythm, but this transition, and several others like it, hurt the flow of the record. 22, A Million starts and stops frequently in this manner all the way through its first half, but after “29 #Strafford APTS” kicks in with its familiar acoustic guitar picking and distant pianos, the record settles into a flow that is much more reminiscent of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The closing track “00000 Million” bookends the record as only Bon Iver can, with a sparkly major key piano ballad intercut with a fitting Fion Regan sample. Once again, the lyrics feel subservient to the soaring vocal melody, but in doing so it removes any inherent cliché in the song’s otherwise pop-standard structure. It’s hard to tell if 22, A Million is the record we wanted from Bon Iver. The production is strange, and often disjointed, but the songwriting is familiar in all the right ways. The textural horns, frequent pianos and hazy synthesizers that permeate the record all feel like Bon Iver at this point, and the few acoustic guitar and banjo features are similarly comforting in their familiarity. The moments where Bon Iver commits the hardest to his new electronic aesthetic and lets samples and modulation define the tone are the most successful, if only because they come the closest to fulfilling the promise of the “Bon Iver goes electronic” narrative. 22, A Million is listenable from front to back, an album through and through, and although not without its awkward moments, is one that should help make your winter another good one. • Liam Prost illustration: Greg Doble BEATROUTE • OCTOBER 2016 | 51