Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Since he first appeared on the scene in 2007, Justin Vernon has come a very long way. From sending his album out to music bloggers in the hope of a short write up to collaborating with artists such as Kanye West and James Blake, Justin Vernon has gone from being an unknown artist to one of the biggest figures in contemporary music. Since this time, his sound has come a long way too. With its legendary back story, strummed acoustic guitar, and falsetto vocals, For Emma, Forever Ago was the epitome of the ever popular tortured artist effect. An instant classic. Four years later, Bon Iver was a big step up. Fuller. Bolder. It ensured that Justin Vernon could no longer be classed as just a fey indie folkie. 22, A Million marks a further change. And how. This is more than merely a follow up to a highly successful sophomore album. This is a work that captures a certain early 21st-century Zeitgeist no less. The songs are so fractured they literally break up in front of you. The vocals so artificially transformed, so overlain, that the ‘real’ voice of the singer is almost impossible to identify. And all by way of a carefully orchestrated social media campaign. The result is both as slick and as discomforting as the times we live in. And yet 22, A Million is not as far removed from its folkie predecessor as you might think. For Emma, Forever Ago was so affecting because Justin Vernon had been left emotionally fractured and disconnected and the songs reflected it perfectly. Even at that time, the falsetto was scarcely his ‘real’ voice. It was more like a vocal shield behind which to hide his ‘true’ emotions. And getting music bloggers interested in your sound was an innovative way of using social media at the time. Looked at this way, 22, A Million isn’t so much a new departure as the sound of an artist who’s moved on to a place where he’s been before. But it’s not the instant classic of its predecessor. This is an album that you have to ‘get’ rather than just like. An album that’s daring you to turn it off at the same time as it’s trying to draw you in. It’s a difficult album for a difficult age. A ‘true’ Bon Iver album.
If you’re missing some good-old fashioned guitar music after listening to 22, A Million, then try ‘Gallup, NM’ from The Shouting Matches, a Bon Iver side project from 2013 and reviewed here.