The album dares you to come closer, to peer into its depths and figure it out. But in the end, there may not be anything to figure out.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has always been oblique, but 22, A Million is a proud cipher. The album dares you to come closer, to peer into its depths and figure it out. But in the end, there may not be anything to figure out. Some will be infuriated by its obscurity. Others will simply be enthralled by its rich arrangements, soul-searching melancholy and bold use of electronics.
The lyrics are mostly addressed to “you,” likely a woman but possibly a deity; religious references abound, from gospel samples to the Psalm quoted in the “33 ‘GOD’” video to references to consecration and confirmation on “22 (OVER S∞∞N).” Occasionally, a clear-cut image (“staying at the Ace Hotel,” “I’m standing in the street now and I carry his guitar”) comes through. But they’re not much help, and meaning evaporates as quickly as it’s hinted at. In this context, the signs and symbols that grace the cover feel almost like a taunt.
Unlike Bon Iver’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago, which was nearly overwhelmed by its charming backstory (sad beardo from Wisconsin endures breakup, decamps to cabin in woods to make album), Vernon no longer asks you to understand or empathize with him. He’s split up with another squeeze since his last album, so there may be a breakup at the bottom of it all. But it could as easily be a celebration of newfound love.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that 22 doesn’t mean anything at all, and that the whole thing’s all for show. But if so, what a show it is. This is some of the most gorgeous music Vernon’s ever made, despite the best efforts of the glitchy production and song-subducting synth bass that threatens to overwhelm a few tracks. In a departure from his daintier, folkier early work, there’s real muscle here – most bludgeoningly on “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” with its clattering drums, but also on the fortissimo Auto-Tune soul of “715 – CRΣΣKS,” the rootsiest song on the album if only because it’s about rivers and herons.
Still, this is distinctly a Bon Iver album, built around simple, major-key progressions and pretty melodies. It’s never ugly even in its most challenging and aggressive moments. Though he’s clearly trying to disown the indie-folk aesthetic that’s helped his career and hindered his reputation among the hipsterati (just look at those song titles!), he can’t resist but slip a banjo into the tail end of “____45_____.” The saxophones that were a staple of his last album, 2011’s excellent Bon Iver, Bon Iver, are a constant. Perhaps the album’s most gorgeous moment comes when the sax blows like a forlorn wind over the electronic debris of “22 (OVER S∞∞N).”
Vernon’s discovery of vocal samples is 22’s most striking revelation. He’s joined buddies Kanye and James Blake – not to mention countless house producers – in discovering just how much soul a bit of cut-up diva can convey. From the chipmunk that croons “it’ll be over soon” on “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” to the specter of folkie Fionn Regan that haunts “00000 Million,” there’s often a bit of manipulated voice finishing Vernon’s sentences. It’s often the samples that speak most directly to the listener, interrupting Vernon’s esoterica with fragments of simple vernacular.
The album doesn’t hold up as well on more “traditional” material where Vernon finishes a sentence without some glitch or sample piping up. “8 (circle)” is turgid and overlong, and its main function seems to be to add extra meat to the relatively breezy, 34-minute album. “00000 Million” is nice to listen to, but its piano-vox arrangement doesn’t congeal into anything substantial enough to feel like a song. It seems like a sketch of the sort of power ballad Vernon mastered on 2011’s controversial “Beth/Rest.”
Aside from these fumbles, how much pleasure a listener will get out of 22 is largely dependent on how much they invest into figuring it out. Vernon’s cat-and-mouse game can be infuriating, evoking emotion coming from musical cues rather than anything the auteur lets on. But this impenetrable, pretty can also be a great canvas for whatever the listener is feeling. If you’re sad, it might be as purifying as any breakup album. If you’re exalted and ecstatic about life, it has plenty of joy. If you’re neutral, its musical cues give you something to listen to, like wistful saxophones and that awesome synth bass. This is a bold and superbly produced album with no shortage of superficial pleasures. If you’re prepared to tackle it, good luck.