Without turning this album review into a state-of-the-nation treatise, it feels fitting that 2016, a pretty discombobulating year by anybody’s standards, is one of a similar aesthetic overhaul in the music of some of pop’s biggest names.

Innovation is to be expected from artists of the underground, but this year the likes of Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Nick Cave, Rihanna, Radiohead and James Blake have pursued directions that are more stripped back, electronic and lo-fi. Now, purveyor of radio-friendly neo-folk Bon Iver have gone the same way. Lost are the smoothly arranged guitar melodies, and in their place are break beats, distorted vocals and misshapen songs.

Even when compared to the likes of Frank Ocean, the style change is so abrupt it runs the risk of becoming one of those dreaded “statement” albums. Instead though, 22, A Million is a thrilling listen which, for all the chaos, maintains the band’s emotional potency and distinct identity.

“22, A Million reads like an unfinished scrapbook of melodic ideas and personal stylings…”

Opening track, ‘22 (OVER S??N)’, starts with an unpolished vocal loop pitch-shifted and layered a lá James Blake. It’s a completely new sound for Bon Iver, but the sheen of Justin Vernon’s vocals wisely keeps the song grounded in the band’s style, in spite of the gospel singers which rise from nowhere underneath him.

22, A Million is a melting pot of styles and ideas. Like Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo from earlier this year, it reads like an unfinished scrapbook of melodic ideas and personal stylings. Thanks to the shambolic release of Kanye’s album (which may or may not still be a work in progress) it remains ambiguous as to whether a particularly lo-fi aesthetic is what the rapper set his mind to, or whether he’s just slowly losing it. At a concise 34 minutes, 22, A Million reads as far more purposeful.

“With so many interesting and fresh avenues and ideas, it’s hard not to wish some of the more fleeting were explored further…”

The following song, ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ? ?’, is one of the most exciting on the album, with pounding bass hits lathered in white noise, laid above a thick sub-bass. The lyrics emerge through the chaos, splintered by modulation, while horns erupt: jagged and unsynchronised.

‘33 “GOD”’ features the only example of bombast that compares to 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ? ?‘; with thumping drums erupting at the chorus, and comes from a far less meditative place than the tracks which surround it – but even within its boundaries lie small, quiet moments. They’re songs which push the record into brand new territory, and yet strangely it’s inherently unsatisfying. With so many interesting and fresh avenues and ideas, it’s hard not to wish some of the more fleeting were explored further.

‘715 – CR??KS’ boasts another beautiful idea I could imagine enjoying over an album on its own. The second and third song evidence best the way in which Bon Iver bounces one contrasting idea off each other, encapsulating the sonic extremities of the record: manipulation of sound, and manipulation of voice. While ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ? ?’ is the most wild extreme of Bon Iver’s oeuvre to date, ‘715 – CR??KS’ focalises the haunting way vocals are layered on the album.

It takes a few listens to realise that there are no instruments on the track – just Justin Vernon’s vocals modulated, over dubbed and pitch-shifted using a “prismizer” – an instrument created by the band’s manager, which creates polyphony sounds without the use of auto-tune.

By placing a spotlight on this style, they enhance what was implicit in such vocal-play ever since first deployed by Laurie Anderson on Big Science; the corruption of the human voice creating feelings of distance, alienation and pain. Vernon certainly follows the theme in the lyrics of the song, where he expresses anguish at “finding both your hands as second sun came past the glass/And oh, I know it felt right, and I had you in my grasp”.

“The smaller moments which were once the band’s oeuvre now pale in comparison to the bold experimentalism of the record whole.”

The simple manipulation of vocals to shape melodies out of their distortion alone appears as a sonic theme throughout – such as on the heart-breaking ‘29 #Strafford APTS’, where the phrase “you’re fabric now” is manipulated to sound like a pleading cry, and ties a bow on a beautiful acoustic number closest to the folk work they were previously known for. 

‘666 ?’ features some of the most conventional song-writing on the LP, featuring just a distant synth timbre below gently plucked guitar in a For Emma, Forever Ago vein – and indeed the emotion of the track comes from a similar place as the fragile beauty of that record. However, this song, along with ’21 M??N WATER’, is of the less memorable of the ten. On a previous record they may have been a revelation, but 22, A Million is an exciting album, and the smaller moments which were once the band’s oeuvre now pale in comparison to the bold experimentalism of the record whole. 

“It’s rare for an album to come along where its influences aren’t just patently obvious from first listen…”

It’s ‘8 (circle)’ which feels like the heart and climax of 22, A Million. This album’s ‘Holocene’, the song is a slow-burning gem, and the album’s centrepiece. The billowing vocals which emerge over a pensive drone make it known as such and the rhythm of the track is pushed forward by fresh synth lines and percussive inflections. The aforementioned vocal layering reaches its apex here, and the horn breakdown which emerges around the halfway point of the track imbues it with a second movement. As demonstrated on Bon Iver, Bon Iver – the oft-fragile band perversely share a trait with the best post-rock bands; being able to transform a song unrecognisably before your very eyes. The opening minute of the song is worlds apart from the dense choir which is in full swing by its closing moments just four minutes later.

‘8 (circle)’ is indeed a statement song: not coincidentally one which brings together the achievements of Bon Iver’s more conventional early LPs and the fresh direction of their third. It also lays rest to the notion that their new aesthetic, obfuscated by bizarre numerology and ridiculous album titles, is only skin deep.

Contrary to some claims, their vocal-heavy electro-folk does hint at influences, in the likes of Peter Gabriel, Sufjan Stevens and Laurie Anderson, but that clouds the fact that it’s rare for an album to come along where its influences aren’t just patently obvious from first listen, where the sound and direction are as fresh and vibrant as the music on 22, A Million.

Bon Iver has faced some backlash for going from one of the most modest folk bands to one of electronic experimentation, but that’s the price you pay for making an album as daring and expressive as this. 

Liam Inscoe – Jones

Image courtesy of Bon Iver via Facebook

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