PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Bon Iver: 22, A Million

With a bold, experimental vision, Justin Vernon and company lose some of the nostalgia and start looking forward.

Bon Iver

22, A Million

Label: Jagjaguwar
Release Date: 2016-09-30

In an essay accompanying the announcement of Bon Iver’s first album since 2011, Justin Vernon’s friend Trever Hagen describes 22, A Million as "part love letter, part final resting place of two decades of searching for self-understanding like a religion." He goes on to explain that the major stylistic shift on the album serves not just as a stage in the group’s musical evolution, but as a resolution to Vernon’s nostalgic inner saboteur. It is, according to Hagen, a reconciliation with music as a vehicle for understanding oneself and others.

The first thing listeners will notice, however, is not necessarily the subtle shifts in intention and lyrical focus, but rather the dramatic diversion from the ear-wormy, acoustic ballads of old Bon Iver. 22, A Million is loaded with classic soul samples, avant-garde jazz flourishes, electronic accents, and even something that sounds like record scratching. Most of the songs have surprising and unpredictable melodies or fluid, modulating tempos that keep them from feeling too familiar too quickly. Where "Skinny Love" was instantly hummable, "____45_____" refuses to settle into any kind of pattern, jumping between tuneless woodwinds and haphazard vocals. It’s a jarring and unexpected move, but all of it’s layered complexity at least turns heads and demands further attention.

"Old" Bon Iver moments still persist in the pleasant falsetto melody of "33 ‘GOD’" and the slow, campfire-style acoustic guitar on "29 #Strafford APTS". But those elements sound as though they exist only to provide stark contrast when the tracks take sharp turns to new destinations. The group almost lulls the listener into a false sense of security only to toss in a deep, warbling synth bass and cut the momentum at it’s crescendo. Or, like on "____45_____" the introduction of a familiar banjo late in the song grounds the song as if to reassure fans that the differences, though many, are all connected to the music as a whole.

22, A Million also incorporates strange and cryptic imagery and numerology in its titles and lyrics. The numbers are used in metatextual ways like the song "33 ‘GOD’" being three minutes and 33 seconds long, or the final track, "00000 Million" reads as 1,000,000 when shown with the track number, 10, in front of it. According to Hagen’s essay, the number 22 holds special weight to Vernon and represents him and his own duality. The numbers throughout the lyrics and the titles hold similar weight in his personal life and in his relationship with religion like "715 - CRΣΣKS" which references a Wisconsin area code. The lyrics follow the trend combining the mystical with the physical and the scientific with the religious. The duality is present on all sides as Vernon’s voice shifts between various timbres. He struggles lyrically along with the instrumentals to reconcile everything into one.

The album’s interconnected ideas and strict, meta, organization may actually be it’s largest failure. The ideas and sounds in each song often don’t feel like they flow into each other naturally. "666 ʇ" ends abruptly and aside from the religious counterpoint, "21 M♢♢N WATER" shifts the tone so dramatically that it halts the album’s momentum. The same is true for "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄" and it’s pounding drums that pull the listener too quickly out of the reverie of the album’s opener. "8 (circle)" suffers because the album required that it be the eighth track, but in that position it feels like a non-sequitur. Forcing the ideas to exist in a preordained order or structure leads to an unfocused album experience that would function almost as well on shuffle.

Hagen in his essay defines music as "a buoyant substance that we grab onto when the water rises above our heads". With this album, Justin Vernon and Bon Iver have made an attempt at rebuilding their little boat into a massive, complicated, and intensely modern ship. After years of seeking, it seems that Vernon has some kind of resolution for the listeners. He has the blueprints for a successful vessel. The plans may be incomplete, the hull might have a few cracks, but it floats and it has a heading. Where that is, maybe no one, not even Vernon, knows for sure, but it’s nice to see the band is still afloat.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.