Bon Iver's latest record is what would have happened if Henry David Thoreau locked himself in the woods with a synthesizer, an old loop pedal, and Frank Ocean's new record instead of his notebook.
22, A Million is five years in the making, and, despite being a far-cry from his self-titled 2011 effort or 2007's masterfully moody For Emma, Forever Ago, still feels very much like Bon Iver. Justin Vernon's voice, now one of the most recognizable instruments in pop thanks to various collaborations with Kanye West and others, is as coated with Auto-Tune as ever, but sacrifices none of it's authenticity.
A notable recluse, Vernon's style remains very much his own. That being said, the leap from recording in a cabin in the deep woods of North Wisconsin to playing secret hotel shows and festivals in Berlin has made his music vibrate with a different kind of power. This is evident from the warbled saxophone that pervades the record to the fact that every song title features numbers and unpronounceable symbols. Were the sound not unmistakably Bon Iver, the tracklist could easily be mistaken for Halfaxa-era Grimes.
Vernon's new sound remains moody as ever, but for every folk ballad (killer final song "00000 Million") there's a song with a gnashing, aggressive percussion and vocals distorted beyond understanding ("10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄"). Perhaps the most exciting part of the record is that these extremes don't make it any less enjoyable—Vernon is stretching his sonic boundaries, and the result is as unsettling as it is mesmerizing.
The grapple between backwoods and bright lights is evident on the record. "33 "GOD"" feels like a walk through a post-apocalyptic city as much as "715 - CRΣΣKS" embodies his forest-tinged longing, which comes through despite the emotionally flattening effects of Auto-Tune. The vocal run at the end of the track still somehow feels organic, despite a flourish that's completely electronic.
His writing remains as beautifully cryptic as ever. "Sure as any living dream, it's not more than what it seems, "he sings on "29 #Strafford APTS," a slower track that harkens back to the Bon Iver audiences are used to. The track—and the entire record, for that matter—is characterized by a distant sadness. The openness of his old music has been replaced with restraint, and it makes for a more compelling listen.
Equal parts sensitive folk musician from the woods of Wisconsin to semi-robotic superstar, Vernon can't seem to run from his past, but he can look at his natural surroundings through a completely new lens. The tremulous, moonlit "21 M♢♢N WATER" speaks volumes to this: it's a lake at midnight, but it's also a metallic landscape. You can't separate Vernon from the nature that helped him produce the honest, heartbreaking music, but his new context and place in the industry has given him new tools to work with. The ensuing change in his sound is haunting, thought-provoking, and ultimately rewarding.
22, A Million arrives everywhere this Friday (September 29th). Pre-order now on iTunes, and watch the official lyric video for "33 "GOD"" below.