Bon Iver’s “33 ‘God’” is a masterpiece of cross-pollination

The latest from 22, A Million amalgamates the last five years of Vernon’s work
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Back in 2012, after an 18-month tour, Justin Vernon said of Bon Iver: “There’s so much attention on the band, it can be distracting at times. I really feel the need to walk away from it while I still care about it.” In the time since, Vernon released an album with Volcano Choir that embraced stadium ambitions. He clearly doesn't have an issue with anthemic songwriting; perhaps he simply thought Bon Iver wasn’t the proper medium for that level of recognition. Certain aspects of 22, A Million would support that argument. This is a Kid A-like style shift after a mainstream breakthrough — a deliberately radical departure that will make jetsam of casual fans.

Justin Vernon held a press conference over the weekend to discuss 22, A Million, breaking down the process of recording, the sounds that inspired him, and the moment he almost scrapped the record. The album, in Vernon’s words, is defined by “explosiveness and shouting more.” “33 ‘God‘” in many ways, captures the crux of this new direction. There’s an air of cross-pollination to it, notably from James Blake and Kanye West. A few months ago, chopped vocal samples, helium pitch-shifting and an industrial sputter would have been on the low-probability end of things you would have expected from a new Bon Iver song.

The emphasis on experimentation and unusual structure obscures what is, skeletally, a straightforward song about doubt and articles of faith. There’s no chorus to speak of, and instruments clash with unprecedented force. On the other hand, you can imagine a stripped down acoustic version with untouched vocals working on the strength of the melodies. Some of the lyrics are precise (“I find God and religion too/Staying at the Ace Hotel”), others inscrutable (“The foreman is down/We’re rising the stairs”), effectively negotiating the polarity between deeply personal turmoil and arty abstractions.

Despite some recurring ticks and (of course) Vernon’s voice, these new songs make it abundantly clear that this project has grown far beyond its folk roots, with no discernible trajectory. Bon Iver doesn't emerge often enough for us to be able to dissect trends or ongoing patterns anyways. We can plot where we are, but the lack of continuity essentially assures us that each record will be a snapshot. “33 ‘God” may serve as 22’s focal point. But it’s not a prognosticator, just a gorgeous amalgam.