Bon Iver's new vocabulary is jarring, but their essence remains the same

Don't let titles like “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠” and “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” fool you, Bon Iver's as good as ever
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Don't let titles like “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠” and “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” fool you, Bon Iver's as good as ever
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At long last, a sensitive indie soulster who released one of the young decade’s hallmark albums has broken his silence after a seemingly interminable absence. No, not Frank. Five years after 2011’s self-titled gem, Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver project finally dropped two new tracks late last week after debuting his entire forthcoming album, 22, A Million, at his curated Eaux Claires Music Festival. As always with Mr. Vernon, the most salient constant is change.

Five years is an eternity in pop music metrics. So much can change in a mere half-decade. Bon Iver’s two new tracks, the first and second on 22, A Million, demonstrate how Vernon has incorporated sonic shifts of the last few years. If For Emma was spare, wintry folk and Bon Iver was boundary-pushing, Auto-Tuned acoustic poetry, then the first tastes of 22, A Million promise a continuing evolution, further distorting Vernon’s songwriting with discordant song structures, bizarre instrumentation, and titles that look like the listing on an Aphex Twin B-side compilation. Fortunately, the essence of the band has remained the same.

The most immediately jarring is “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠”, which opens with a fractured, distorted clomping march that wouldn’t sound out of place on his buddy Kanye’s Yeezus. The track builds gradually with increasingly frenzied Auto-Tuned yelping and what sounds like a heavily processed sheep-bleating (or at least judging from the cues on the lyric video). A mélange of horns kicks in and soon enough all the Bon Iver pieces are in place, albeit in a more complex and initially off-putting format than before. The track takes at least half a dozen listens to sink in, but its melodic subtleties reveal themselves in time, as we have come to expect from Mr. Vernon.

The more viscerally pleasing is the album opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”. This more traditional Bon Iver composition still subtly expands upon the band’s previous sound by incorporating chipmunked soul samples and a looping vocal note that forms the harmonic bed for the track. The gently strummed guitar chords and soaring strings that accompany the track are a warm welcome back for the sorely missed songwriter. As with his previous effort, Vernon’s new tracks are aural poetry, a collection of sounds accompanied by lyrics that seem inscrutable as a whole, but implement distinct phrases that evoke something different in each listener. Phrases like “Oh and I have carried consecration / And then you expelled all decision” and “I’m unorphaned in our northern lights” seem deliberately abstruse, but then again, that kind of customizable melancholy is one of Vernon’s greatest strengths.

It’s been a long wait, Justin, but these two singles make me confident that the wait will be worth it. September 30 can’t come quickly enough.