Forget the mythology, the cabin in the woods, the months alone. Forget it, it doesn’t mean anything any more. This much is clear from the opening moments of Bon Iver‘s new album 22, A Million. It’s an otherwordly record made up of textures of distorted samples, soaked in vocoder, each track a dense fog (almost as impenetrable as that tracklisting).
Lead track ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ is built around a pulsating, flickering sample promising “it might be over soon”, perhaps a reference to the threat to split the band that main man Justin Vernon made following 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s somewhat mixed reception. It’s like he’s taken sad-boy R&B and wedged it into the folky patterns that he understands. ‘715 – CRΣΣKS’ is a prime example. It’s soulful a cappella other than the thick harmonies created by the vocoder. That same processing of the vocals serves to wrap the lyrics in a dense blanket making them more obscure than they would be if they were clean: “Toiling with your blood/I remember something/In B, un-rationed kissing on a night second to last” indeed.
‘33 “GOD”’’s piano loops emerge briefly like a breath of fresh air, only to be surrounded by chirruping vocal samples, bringing back that claustrophobic atmosphere. As the throbbing bass and drums kick in and those vocals – those vocals! – come back, it’s like TV on the Radio at their best. No-one could have expected that from the artist behind For Emma, Forever Ago’s sparse, whispered guitar shapes but it’s that record that 22, A Million resembles closest in spirit. The intimacy that was lacking from Bon Iver, Bon Iver is back, albeit in a radically different form as the patchwork of electronic washes and deliberate crackles of noise bring the creative process to the foreground. He may not be locking himself away in a log cabin now, but the studio is as much a character, a band member on this record as that room was on his debut.
If you imagine the plucked synth sounds of ‘666 ʇ’ being played on an acoustic guitar, the links are clear. Lyrically, it seems to be a reference to this bold change (“It’s not for broader appeal/Fuck the fashion of it, dear”) and nowhere else on the record is this clearer than the closing minute of the following track ‘21 M♢♢N WATER’. Brass lines and wheezing electronics cut and slice into a shimmering future jazz that eventually gives way to the closing trio of more traditionally structured songs. It’s telling that this is where the album feels least fleshed out; Vernon has moved on from the blues, except that he hasn’t at all. He’s just creating something new with it, something that places him at the midpoint between Kanye West‘s innovative sampling and pioneering production and Simon & Garfunkel’s close harmonies and gentle guitar. It’s an odd place to be, sure, but a staggeringly beautiful one.
22, A Million is released on 30 September on Jagjaguwar.