By Ben Ridgeway and Alexandros Giagtzis
Hipsters rejoice; thy demigod hath returned.
Indie folk pioneer Justin Vernon, better known by his stage name Bon Iver, has resurfaced after a five-year hiatus with “22, A Million,” a complex and layered interweaving of folk and electronica.
Although “22, A Million” is marked by Vernon’s signature distorted falsetto, ambivalent rhythms and fluttering banjo licks, this album takes a decidedly different turn from Vernon’s preceding self-titled album Bon Iver, which is rooted more in folk.
Rather, in “22, A Million” the listener is subjected to an intricate smattering of indie, folk, and interestingly, electronica-dubbed folktronica. This is especially noticeable in the opening track “22, Over Soon,” in which the first thing we hear is not Vernon’s falsetto, but a high-pitched distorted computer voice, similar to what one would hear in a Chainsmokers or Martin Garrix song. The rest of the album follows suit, continuing off-track from what a frequent listener would expect from Bon Iver.
Another significant example of this folktronic sound is “715 – CR∑∑KS,” in which only Vernon’s distorted voice is featured, accompanied by sometimes uncomfortably long periods of silence. Although no other musical instruments are heard, the song takes on a sense of fullness in the dreamlike, almost melancholic layering of harmony and falsetto -— strikingly similar to the Imogen Heap song “Hide and Seek.” The song definitely sticks out from the rest of the album; in all the other songs, we are bombarded by incongruous and seemingly nonsensical sounds and words, whereas “715 – CR∑∑KS” is more personal and intimate, making you feel like Vernon is speaking directly to you.
In stark contrast, “33 ‘GOD’” is an example of a masterpiece of paradox and juxtaposition. Much like the poems of James Joyce, Vernon’s lyrics seem to be a stream of consciousness constantly running off on tangents which spark new thoughts in the singer’s mind. One can only guess at the personal meaning that the song expresses. At the song’s beginning, Vernon is accompanied by an almost innocent sounding piano lick suggesting that the singer’s frame of mind is also innocent. However, as the song continues, this piano turns into thunderous drums, possibly suggesting that Vernon’s mood has changed to that of frustration. Perhaps Vernon is torn by a decision or view. It can be said that Vernon is inviting us into his own thoughts, thoughts and feelings that everyone experiences: naïveté, anger, frustration. It is a song to which everyone can relate.
Although we continuously see aspects of EDM and electronica in certain songs — from the deep, driving bassline of “10 dEAThbREasT” to the lilting ambient synths of “21 M◊◊N WATER” — Vernon goes back to his roots somewhat in the last 3 songs of the album. “8 (circle),” “____45_____,” and “00000 Million” each adopt a simpler, humble tone, ditching the vocal distortion and capricious instrumental notes for a down-to-earth song structure centered around soulful melody, from the Coldplay-like piano riffs of “00000 Million” to the passionate fanfare of horns in “8 (circle).”
Bon Iver fans will appreciate his efforts to keep his music interesting and experimental through the interweaving of aspects of electronica, yet they will take heart in the fact that his music remains fundamentally based on the indie folk style of which he is most well-known.