Album of the Week - Bon Iver's 22, A Million: a kaleidoscope of sonic strokes
Much has changed since Justin Vernon spent a long Wisconsin winter in a log cabin taking stock of his life. That led to his 2007 debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago and the Bon Iver story began to roll.
Nearly a decade later, and Vernon’s influence is writ large in the pop landscape. The sheer amount of albums that match an emotional, haunting falsetto with melancholic, evocative mood music is testament to the For Emma effect, as are all those patchy covers of Skinny Love on YouTube. Add in Vernon’s appeal as a collaborator for dudes such as Kanye West and James Blake, and we’re a long way from that log cabin.
22, A Million demonstrates that he has also come far from that origin story. Like the Bon Iver debut, the new one was born of burnout, but the creative fatigue this time came after a lengthy successful tour hawking the second album (Bon Iver, Bon Iver).
This time he has turned to machines for a solution rather than the introversion of old. The approach makes 22, A Million a kaleidoscope of bold sonic strokes and experimental bravado, with Vernon sampling like bejaysus and bringing Paolo Nutini, Fionn Regan, Stevie Nicks, Mahalia Jackson and others into the wash.
It’s clear that this is very much about sweeping the decks clean. While you will detect shadows of Vernon’s old pitch here and there, these are mere flickers compared with the recalibration happening throughout. From the nonconventional song titles to the manner in which Vernon brings the gospel and folky tangs together with fragments of electronic strapping, 22, A Million is a record brave enough to take chances.
When you give them the time to weave their spell, tracks such as 21 Moon Water, 8 (circle) and 00000 Million are as moving and powerful as anything in the back catalogue. The new coatings may scare the horses, but that’s probably no bad thing. Just don’t expect any of these songs to turn up any time soon on your favourite reality TV music talent show.