Album of the Week: Bon Iver, '22, A Million'

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Bon Iver, '22, A Million'
Bon Iver, '22, A Million' (Jagjaguwar)

Our album of the week is the long-awaited new record from Bon Iver, 22, A Million.

This is an album that did not come easy for Justin Vernon. When the relentless promotion, touring, and hoopla surrounding his last Grammy-winning album finally died down, Justin found himself burnt out and paralyzed by anxieties.

When I visited Eau Claire, Wis., last month to attend a press conference about the new Bon Iver album, hearing about this turning point in Justin's life helped me to understand just how important it is that this album even came into existence — and that for a while there, it was a very real possibility that we might not ever hear from Justin Vernon as "Bon Iver" again.

"Don't go to the Greek Islands off-season, by yourself. I was trying to find myself. Did not," he said, scoffing. He went to Greece to find solace, which makes perfect sense to me. But unlike that fabled remote cabin in the woods that he used to create his first Bon Iver album, this time around seeking solitude only made the anxieties worse.

Instead, 22, A Million is a culmination of all the things he's learned from his friends. He approached this album like a hip-hop producer, perhaps inspired by watching Kanye West, bringing in samples of his favorite gospel singers, modern-day artists like Paolo Nutini, and the sounds of Mike Lewis positively freaking out on the saxophone.

And he, in his own words, has "made an instrument" — a new contraption called the Messina (after his engineer, Chris Messina), which allows him to split instruments into layered harmonies in real time, turning saxophones and the sound of his own voice into something that resembles a futuristic pump organ.

As I wrote after my visit to Eau Claire, the Messina is all over 22, A Million, but its abilities are heard most distinctly in the mind-bending saxophone spinout on "45," the second-to-last track on the album. Michael Lewis's free-form sax lines bend and slip in and out of time as Vernon arranges them into gospel chord changes, and it sounds like Lewis's playing is a ribbon that Vernon is picking up and zig-zagging through the air. The effect is staggering.

"The '45' song with Lewis, that's my favorite," Vernon said. "We made an instrument. Messina and Francis helped make this instrument, and everyone before that — [talk box innovator] Robert Troutman, who did the most amazing vocoding in the world. We all made an instrument together. And then me and Lewis, the instrument we were playing was only possible to play as two people, and it was just us making music as freely as humanly possible. When we made that recording, I played it for my friend Brad Cook, and he was like, 'Just put that out. That is the best song you've ever made.'"

While it's fair to say that 22, A Million is experimental in nature, it is still, at its core, a Bon Iver record. There are quiet and heart-rending moments, like the acoustic guitar-driven "29," which hark back to For Emma, Forever Ago. There are epic moments, like the whirling end of "33," that remind me of the headier portions of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. And one of the album's defining characteristics is that it rewards repeat listens, which is something that I can say of most of Vernon's body of work. I never tire of it, somehow, and each playback reveals something new and complex about a song's arrangement, a particular lyrical passage, or a subtle sample that adds depth to the work.

I've been following Justin Vernon's career for so many years, from both up close and afar, so I don't know that I can "review" an album of his with any kind of objectivity. Listening to 22, A Million, I feel proud of him, because this work feels like an accomplishment — a testament to what can happen when we feel like walking away but don't, and what kinds of strides can be made when we let ourselves evolve and try something new. I know I'll be returning to this all winter long.

22, A Million releases Friday, Sept. 30, on Jagjaguwar.

Resources


Bon Iver - official site

Bon Iver, "22, A Million" (Amazon)

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