Essential New Music: Bon Iver’s “22, A Million”


Back in 2009, Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP mostly echoed the backwoods folk of the band’s wildly successful debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Until the closing track, that is. “Woods” heard Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon delivering a multilayered a cappella performance with enough vocoder effects to make T-Pain blush. At the time, you could easily envision the song as the start of a bold, new experimental phase for Vernon. Instead, what followed was the snooze-inducing chamber pop of Bon Iver’s 2011 self-titled release.

With 22, A Million, Vernon finally makes good on that earlier promise. The almost alien “715 – CRΣΣKS” is the spiritual successor to “Woods,” with a halting vocal delivery Auto-Tuned to near oblivion. Similarly, on “10 d E A T h b R E a s T,” Vernon’s highly processed vocals ride atop a redlined, tribal beat, as fat synth belches yield to a crescendoing horn section (side note: This song and “33 ‘GOD’” include the album’s only blunders, the chipmunk soul effects popularized by Vernon’s buddy Kanye West).

If all of this sounds off-putting, it really isn’t. Vernon’s gorgeous falsetto and vice grip on melody hold it all together beautifully. And there are more traditional songs here, from the heartfelt, career-best vocal performance on “8 (circle),” to “00000 Million,” a piano ballad conjuring a closing-time singalong. Vernon has said that 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s swan song. Sadly ironic for a band that has so obviously experienced a creative rebirth.

—Matt Ryan