The year was 2012. Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, hadn’t yet reached the Grammy stage to accept an award for Best New Artist, when the internet erupted with wrath and bewilderment. This humble lumberjack with an inexplicable name had just snatched the statuette from the deserving hands of Nicki Minaj (or maybe, for some, Skrillex), and a few people were, um, a little confused. Even fans of Vernon’s music, me included, reacted to the win with ambivalence.
In one sense, the Grammys finally got something right! But Bon Iver’s instant, worldwide exposure seemed more like a Pyrrhic victory than a long-overdue coronation. Mixed emotions led to uncomfortable questions. What might this mean for the next Bon Iver album? Would it materialize at all? If so, would Vernon abandon the gentle, offbeat acoustic-somersaults of Bon Iver, Bon Iver in an effort to grasp at mainstream success? What would that even sound like?
Such worries, of fame degrading artistry, weren’t just unwarranted. If anything, the big Grammy upset appears to have had the opposite effect. The new Bon Iver album, 22, A Million, strikes a glorious compromise. It follows bolder, weirder bypasses that are somehow more melodic, more urgent, and more exciting than those of its celebrated predecessor. The work, at first glance, presents itself as that evergreen career cliché: The Difficult Third Record. 22, A Million gurgles and brays. Songs randomly flicker in and out, suggesting headphone malfunctions. Vocal manipulations, usually in a pitched-up direction, abound. Most notably, these ten tracks dare you to pronounce their titles in casual conversation (“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”, “666 ʇ”, “29 #Strafford APTS”…yeah, good luck). And yet, not since Kid A has an album so superb pushed away and pulled closer its audience, simultaneously and with such aplomb.
Yeezus, which employed harshness and bombast to erect a structure upon which Kanye West preened, was a similar kind of masterwork, though its author was more interested in shedding fans than wrangling them. Vernon, who was a mere brick in that edifice, has learned a thing or two from collaborating with West. He’s peppered 22, A Million with soulful samples. He’s embraced abrasive electronic sounds. He’s discovered ways to reconcile ugliness and beauty.
Here is music — sacred yet profane, tuneful yet ruptured, lush yet stark — that’s meant to ring throughout a cathedral, or perhaps the photonegative of a grand, holy place. Otherworldliness is the lone constant that binds 22, A Million. With the album’s opening triad, Justin Vernon defines his aural palette: aching splendor (“22 (OVER S∞∞N)”) soon gives way to sputtering mayhem (“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”), which then cedes to processed acapella (“715 - CRΣΣKS”). The rest of 22, A Million’s brief runtime mixes and matches accordingly. Vernon is no longer a teenager, and the recipient of his pocket-sized symphonies may not be the Judeo-Christian deity. But these impeccable compositions seem like the logical continuation of Brian Wilson’s childlike mission-statement for his masterpiece, Smile.
Justin Vernon begins 22, A Million by asking himself, “Where you gonna look for confirmation?” On “00000 Million”, the album’s final track, he sings, “Must've been forces, that took me on them wild courses.” Those two bookending lyrics expose a meta-commentary deeper than the search for grace and transcendence, seemingly at the heart of 22, A Million. Vernon reveals his true purpose: Artistic vulnerability nags at him more than any existential question about mortality. The numerological and iconographic puzzles he offers within these ridiculous song titles are the misdirections of an expert magician.
Make no mistake, 22, A Million lays bare a crisis of confidence, writ large. This collection of stunning, whirling jigsaw pieces interlock to form a magnificent rebuke of such neuroses. “33 “GOD””, “666 ʇ”, and “8 (circle)” are as exquisite as Bon Iver gets. Interstitial hymns, such as the spectral “21 M♢♢N WATER” and the wheezy “____45_____”, unite the larger sonic construction, a towering shrine with “00000 Million” resting atop it, a glimmering spire. That last song mirrors “Beth/Rest”, perhaps Bon Iver’s finest and most-divisive achievement. So we circle back; the snake swallows its tail; and Justin Vernon finds a way to escape, heavenward, on the Penrose stairs. A