Every week, we tell you about an album you need to spend time with. This week's is the third LP from Eau Claire, Wisconsin's very own Bon Iver, 22, A Million.
The story of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago is well known, over told, fertile ground for a novel (literally), and treated with a heavy dose of press-overload forced cynicism. Not to mention that most Wisconsinites can name at least seven relatives who have had existential meltdowns over a breakup in a cabin up north. But there’s an element of Justin Vernon’s indie rock god origin story that is relevant to his career, the five years off between his Grammy-winning, self-titled sophomore album, and the weird numerology and press photos for his fantastic new one, 22, A Million that has been under-told, if that’s possible. Vernon didn’t just retire to a cabin to write an album about his breakup; he went to the cabin as a way of beating a hasty retreat from his life, resigning himself to just being a dude from Eau Claire who has a little musical talent and occasionally busts out the guitar when he’s sad. It wasn’t a marketing gimmick; he didn’t do it so he’d have something to talk to the press about. Kids from Eau Claire don’t grow up to be in a band that tours the world. Kids from Eau Claire don’t receive Best New Music on Pitchfork or win Best New Artist at the Grammys. Vernon had no reason to expect that when he shut the door behind him, leaving the cabin and returning to society, that he’d be spearheading rebuilding efforts in the downtown of his hometown or running a hugely successful music festival in the next decade.
He also would have never expected to be included in dozens of roundups of “Anticipated Albums” in basically every publication since his sophomore album Bon Iver, Bon Iver came out. He responded to the outcrying of approval for For Emma on that one with more windswept arrangements, more oblique lyrics, and a general mood of making things “difficult”—it was the arty sophomore album every great art-oriented band makes—but when that only led to more tours, more fans, and more Kanye West song placements, he was left, as he tells it, feeling like he had said everything he had to say. So he retreated again. He took time off. He produced a million albums, played in side projects, and started that festival. He helped remodel a hotel. He seemed ready to let Bon Iver go, just like he let DeYarmond Edison, the band he left to go to that cabin, go.
But we’re here because he didn’t let Bon Iver go: here’s 22, A Million, the project’s third LP, and best. The pressure of following up Bon Iver is mostly manifest in the unpronounceable song titles, and the fact that sonically, this is about as divergent from the last two Bon Iver albums as possible. Gone are the acoustic guitar strums and the beautiful, vista-summoning orchestration, and in their place, layered, adventurous, sonically expansive electronic productions. Vernon solved the problem of having to follow up critically lauded albums by dodging them entirely. What we end up with is a distinct, rich album that rewards repeat listens.
The Bon Iver Stan will find a lot to pore over here. Where Vernon’s lyrics mostly veered personal on previous albums, here he goes metaphysical. There’s a song about math (“21 M♢♢N WATER”), a song about finding god in a relationship (“33 God”), a heavily-Auto-Tuned song about considering your own futility (“715 – CRΣΣKS”). There’s apparently a lot to decode in the numerology of the album—Vernon is represented by 22, the rest of humanity is called “a million”—but I don’t want the Lil’ Orphan Annie decoder ring to this thing; the pleasure of listening to this 50 times is trying to work this stuff out on your own.
You’re going to read a lot this week comparing 22 to Yeezus, since it seems like Vernon got influenced by the idea that beautiful pop music could also sound like it was coming from inside a malfunctioning The Matrix. The comparison makes sense only so far as Vernon sings on both; he’s actually been doing music like this for almost as long as he’s been doing Bon Iver; the electronics on 22 seem reserved and more controlled compared to the electronics on the two Volcano Choir albums Vernon worked on. Which is not to say that he shouldn’t be lauded for the electronic and varied production on 22, the contrary. Any criticisms that could be launched at him for sounding like a coffeehouse are going to be impossible to volley this time out; you can’t imagine your average knit-hat and scone establishment being able to play “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄" or “21 M♢♢N WATER” without part of their clientele being upset.
The album peaks with “666 ʇ,” a song Vernon first publicly performed at the first edition of Eaux Claires. Midway through, Vernon asks “What is left when unhungry?” a statement that might as well serve as the headline for every story about 22, A Million. Vernon started the Bon Iver project when all he had to his name was his music, and now, here he stands, the last lord of indie rock, not even sure six months ago that he was going to make another Bon Iver album. I don’t know if he figured out an answer to that question. But I know that I now have an answer for the best album of 2016: this one.
You can buy 22, A Million from our store now.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.