There’s something about Justin Vernon’s falsetto. It’s fragile but piercing, feathery but pointed, especially when coupled with his cryptic verses hinting at some sort of loss. Vernon first introduced us to this rawness with his band, Bon Iver, in 2008 with For Emma, Forever Ago, in which he crooned in songs like “Flume” and “Blindsided” over simple acoustic guitar, paced by steady bass drum beats.
With Bon Iver’s new album 22, A Million, the band makes a musical 180, assuming an electronic sound and deliberately distorting, processing and reprocessing Vernon’s voice. If Bon Iver in 2008 was sad — Vernon wrote For Emma, Forever Ago after the breakup of his previous band, the end of a relationship and a bout of mononucleosis in his father’s remote hunting cabin in northern Wisconsin — 22, A Million presents Vernon as a shell of his former self, the band’s sound layered and distant. It’s not Vernon cratered and completely helpless, though; there’s a hopefulness to the tracks on 22, A Million, perhaps signaling a change in direction.
This distance may be unexpected, but if you listen closely to even Bon Iver’s earliest tracks, the band was never just about a simple sound. Experimentation was always brimming; “Flume” is punctuated by a fast vibrato created with a magnetic EBow and “Minnesota, WI” off Bon Iver shakes with a fuzz-bass line. 22, A Million is just a culmination of Vernon’s efforts, and an absolutely haunting and successful culmination at that.
“22 (OVER S∞∞N)” opens the album with a cyclical, choral loop over which Vernon sings, “Where you gonna look for confirmation?” Another warbly voice joins him in conversation, cutting in with, “It might be over soon, two two,” throughout the song. According to Vernon’s close friend and collaborator Trever Hagen, two two, or 22, stands for Vernon; they are numbers that suggest duality and represent Vernon’s relationship with himself and with the rest of the world.
Numbers and symbols populate 22, A Million. Every song is titled with a number, determined by Vernon and his band to have a specific significance. Recurring symbols include sigmas and infinity signs, perhaps suggesting additive and repetitive feelings and emotions in certain songs.
It’s not fully clear what the numbers and symbols mean — but I don’t think that’s a big deal. Vernon has crafted some sort of language for himself, and breaks the purity of his band’s past folk-pop genre by means of experimentation. It makes sense that in the five years since Bon Iver’s last album, Vernon has collaborated with James Blake and Kanye West. The result is something new and strangely enchanting. Bon Iver’s emotion has changed alongside the technology of the last few years, gradually becoming coated with Auto-Tune or accompanied by synthesizer to suggest an artificial, digital distancing.
“715 – CR∑∑KS” is a free-form, stripped-down digital a cappella, with no melody save for Vernon’s deformed vocoder-based warbling. The song almost feels too bare, and when you listen closely, you realize that the narrative matches the medium. “Toiling with your blood/ I remember something,” Vernon hesitantly sings, piecing together a memory of someone loved. Vernon follows in the next stanza with, “Oh, then how we gonna cry? Cause it once might not mean something?” The song is short, and ends as abruptly as it starts — no fade, just a clean cut that leaves you feeling a little cold.
Perhaps one of the greatest successes of 22, A Million is how it makes no clear distinction between what sounds are and aren’t music. It makes all the tracks real, embedded with a makeshift quality that reinforces the simple, deeply authentic nature of the album. “29 #Strafford APTS,” perhaps the strongest track on the record, starts as if Vernon is adjusting the mic or setting things down on a table. A simple acoustic guitar refrain frames the song, and Vernon’s fluttery falsetto is echoed by a bold bassline that haltingly crowds out the melody. Towards the end of the song, there is a static interference in Vernon’s voice that makes the listener grimace, and makes what he sings all the more fragile: “I hold the note/ You wrote and know/ You’ve buried all your alimony butterflies.”
The album is short, 10 songs that total just under 35 minutes. Playing it through on repeat, it’s easy to gloss over the closing track, “00000 Million.” Take the time to listen carefully — it resolves the album, bringing it to a pleasant, reassuring end. There are still hints of layering, electronic residue, but a clear piano chord progression breaks through. “When the days have no numbers/ Well it harms it harms me it harms, I’ll let it in.” Sometimes it’s hard to realize that things happen, good or bad — and it can be frustrating that you just have to let them. Vernon never really gives us a clear idea what those things are, but he doesn’t need to. We listen — and fill them in.