Bon Iver’s much awaited third album has arrived amid a flurry of typical expectations and hopes. Justin Vernon, the lead singer of the Inde-Americana Folk Rock band achieved meteoric success with the 2009 and 2011 releases of For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the latter of which garnered a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. However, this success is tempered by the corresponding fame which was heaped onto the introspective Vernon. This fame was only augmented by his close musical alliance with Kanye West, their most recent collaboration with Francis & the Light’s on the palpitating Friends. However, Vernon in a frank and honest interview with the Guardian admitted that fame had led him into a depressive and anxiety ridden state. This subsequently led to a struggle with mental illness and informed the writing and creative process on his latest studio effort, 22 A Million.
First and foremost we are greeted with an almost incomprehensible list of track titles yet one should not allow this to detract from the quality of the music. Despite using niche hacker speak on the tracks, known as Leet, if one was expecting melodic folk-rock tinged with subtle melancholy then one shall not disappointed. Indeed, 22 A Million´s very discordance, it´s heavy synths and echoing Sax only serve to underpin Bon Iver´s more ambitious electronic direction. On album opener 22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version] launches the listener headfirst into the concept of the album. The music video of this track features a picture of Vernon´s photo being burnt and the lyrics “it might be over soon” repeating across strangled guitar and piano. If this was not subtle enough for you, the falsetto of Vernon almost screaming “waiting at the station” suggests a man undoubtedly uncomfortable with success. The result is an intriguing blend of folk guitar, lush strings and the reminder that nothing is ever simple with Bon Iver. 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ (Extended Version) with its pulsating drums and distorted auto-tune is reminiscent of Blood on the Leaves from Kanye´s Yeezus. The similarities don´t end there as the bass builds and builds like a wall being constructed before your very ears as it elegantly transitions to the next track, 715 – CR∑∑KS. It feels as if Vernon took the concepts and foundations laid so assiduously on EP Blood Bank & on Bon Iver, Bon Iver´s Baby´s and elongated them into a shifting snake of audio assault that slithers into your consciousness. You do not understand the content of the lyrics but you do not have to, Bon Iver once again proving that their musical output is so vigorously beautiful that any attempts at delving into Vernon´s psyche are waylaid consistently and effectively. For instance, on 33 “GOD” we are greeted with strings and piano that sound akin to a synthesized Gospel choir, the synthesis of disparate electronic allows for an entertaining denouement and with Morning, as written by Willis S. Graham as a sample, we see the obvious Kanye influence but intelligently it never feels like it subsumes the central core of Bon Iver´s musical direction. Subsequently, 29 #Strafford APTS echoes Beth/Rest and Towers of their previous album with its piano sliding effortlessly into soft guitar which plucks at the edge of your mind, the single lyric “canonize” taking on newfound meanings with every utterance. To this end, the following tracks 666 ʇ, 21 M◊◊N WATER & ____45_____ are experimental efforts in confusion, with nods aplenty to Bands of Horses & Sufjan Stevens yet striking a delicate balance between eclectic reverb and pulsating strings which, ever 10-15 seconds remind us of the ethereal quality of Bon Iver´s craft. Nonetheless, in this writer´s humble opinion the true standout comes shortly before the end. Ostensibly, the obliqueness of 8 (Circle) does not detract from the sheer brilliance of this track. Its complexity allow for moments of unadulterated joy and pleasure in the simplicity of the music. The song has subtle inflections and tones reminiscent of the equally haunting Re:stacks yet to do this song justice would require greater length than this article can allow. Simply listen, and enjoy.
Bon Iver with their third and most likely final album will consummate it´s release with a worldwide tour. However, to truly experience the power of Vernon´s talent, turn the headphones as high as you can and allow yourself to be submerged in an ocean of light and dark which threatens to engulf you. Vernon croons that he is “not sure what forgiveness is, but I know I can leave the harbor behind” is the lyric which, ultimately, cements Bon Iver´s place as the crown princes of Indie-Folk. Raise the sails, leave the harbor behind and never look back. Bon Iver are back with grace, strength and fragility in equal measure.