For all its numerology, symbols and oddities, ‘22, A Million is a relatively simple record. A few years back, Justin Vernon would shape these songs into gloomy acoustic triumphs. On his third album, he combines samples, complexities, abstractions and endless vocoder as a means of veiling otherwise straightforward recordings. Remarkably, instead of getting caught up in devil-eyed deception and silly distractions, Bon Iver sound more emotionally-charged than ever.
‘29 #Strafford APTS’, whatever the hell that means, is a poignant example. Justin makes an acoustic guitar snap like logs on a burning fire. At one point, there’s a crackle of distortion, like somebody fiddling with an aux cable. Deep down, this song could exist on any of Bon Iver’s three records. But it belongs on ‘22, A Million’, because these songs collectively discover a new form of expression.
Without sacrificing the magical formula behind the music, Bon Iver have progressed beyond ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’’s bee-stung, cabin-fevered misery and ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’, which made full-band arrangements from the debut’s blueprint. There’s signs of evolution at every turn. ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ drives Arca-like, skizzing electronics into a fiery pit. ‘8 (circle)’ somehow makes parped horns and shameless 80s synths sound palatable.
Closer ‘1000000 Million’ is the closest Justin comes to sounding like his old self, cooing “it harms me, it harms me, it harms me like a lamb” next to a sample from near-forgotten Irish songwriter Fionn Regan (obviously). That’s the trick - just when he looks to have settled into one state, he’ll throw a curveball. More often than not, musicians determined to avoid old tropes are exhausting. But ‘22, A Million’ stands out as Bon Iver’s finest moment yet, a cross between invention and beauty that’s delivered without compromise.
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