You might be reading articles about people in media and come across the concept of an artist making something “for themselves.” I think it’s a great idea – as a singer/director/painter/composer/what have you, someone is fed up with reviews, praise and criticism that they make a piece of art that they know they’ll enjoy. We’ve seen it in music – look at Bob Dylan’s recent output. He’s been doing it for practically his whole career, it’s just that people latched on to most of it. We saw it in film version earlier this year, when my favorite filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen put out a movie called “Hail, Caesar” that was so into their own irrelevant personal politics that it was borderline unwatchable to anyone who didn’t share their name(s). This is what Justin Vernon’s new album sounds like. Vernon, the frontman and ship-commander of Bon Iver, has never been shy to air his grievances on tape. It’s just here, he does it in a way that alters between being heartbreakingly original and just painfully pretentious.
Vernon is a man who has always dipped his feet into many different pools. It would be easy to say that his big break came when Bon Iver picked up two huge Grammys in 2012 – Best Alternative Album, beating Radiohead and Death Cab For Cutie, and Best New Artist, beating – wait for this – The Band Perry, J. Cole, Skrillex, and Nicki Minaj. But in that same year, Justin Vernon was featured on an album, maybe you know it, Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Although he swept up the Grammy’s in his own indie-folk persona, he snuck in a bunch of nominations via Kanye, a fan who invited him in the studio. I would argue that “Monster,” in which Vernon is 1/5 of musicians present, is one of this century’s best hip-hop songs, and it introduced a whole different audience to his music.
I mention all of this not to be condescending or anything; I mention it because it has become clear that a possibly unintentional association to the hip-hop community has definitely changed Vernon’s music. The first two Bon Iver albums – which came out in 2008 and 2011, respectively, capitalized on the indie-folk movement that was big at the time. They’re gems, throughout. I’ll admit that I’ve never felt the connection to them that a lot of people have, but they are gems. Four years later, after a self-imposed hiatus, Vernon’s Bon Iver still reflects the music movements of today. But it doesn’t capture the current eclectic zeitgeist as well. In an age where A$ap Rocky records with Florence Welch, David Bowie writes an album inspired by Kendrick Lamar, and Bruce Springsteen praises Kanye, there is an insane amount of cross-blending going on.
At times, Bon Iver’s album hits emotional highs where his new concoction of hip-hop induced freakfolk strikes an emotional cord that somehow has not been hit yet. Opening track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is a brutally honest way to open an album, with Vernon seemingly pondering his own existence, singing “It might be over soon.” The song falls to a saxophone bit that plays over a particularly grating chant. One of the album’s best tracks is “33”GOD”,” which ironically works because of its clarity. The song is the clearest song on the album – the song that sounds the most like traditional Bon Iver. In a weird way, it’s refreshing.
Vernon’s lyrics throughout the album are his strongest suit. His words are emotionally distant and discontent – the words of a man who never planned on being famous and showing up on Kanye albums. The main problem is, sometimes those lyrics are simply indecipherable. Parts of this album beg the question often posed to bands like Lightning Bolt or Deafheaven – does renegading your lyrics behind a curtain of indecipherability render them pointless?
The album, when not highlighting a poignant, dissonant emotional feel, gives into its worst indulgences. Vernon has recorded with and under a number of bands and aliases, so it’s tough not to wonder why he felt the Bon Iver moniker was the right one for this album. It’s wildly different, to a point where it feels like Vernon flaunting his own split in the biggest avenue he can find, and that avenue just happens to be Bon Iver. The album has great tracks – but ones like the utterly dull “29 #Stafford APTS” or the annoyingly grating, a capella “715 – CRΣΣKS” make you wonder why this album has to exist in the first place. There’s little middle ground here – there’s either tracks that capture beauty amidst roughness, or just the roughness. On both go-arounds I made of this album, I had to restart “8 (circle)” because both times I completely forgot I was listening to music. Vernon retreats into himself on this album – and when he has an emotional center to bounce off, then he’s written some of the best songs of his career. But at other times, he’s become so self-indulgent that it doesn’t even feel like there should be another listener besides him.
The song titles don’t help his case. Don’t trust every review that praises the mystical song titles – sure, each one has a number. Do we know what it means? Not really. Does it seem to matter? Not really. I don’t know how many people were truly excited to see the torch that Devendra Banhart abandoned be picked up, but this isn’t really the way to do it. Calling a song something like “____45_____” doesn’t intrinsically add anything of value, it just makes it look different. And in this case, that different is goofy, not inspirational. Vernon treats this album like he is the grandmaster of freakfolk, but he isn’t, not by decades. Maybe he was influenced by Kanye, maybe these tracks came out of his own frutration and I’m just not accepting them correctly. But “22, A Million” just doesn’t feel like the revolutionary piece of art that the band so seems to think it is. It definitely takes multiple listens, and it is never what you expect. At times, it is nothing but sheer greatness. But it is also such a mess of pretentious experimental nonsense that it never answers the basic question of why it needs to exist in the first place. Some people will love it; some really won’t. Maybe Justin Vernon made this album for himself, or maybe he made it for those fans. Either way, “22, A Million” never rises above being a reminder of the better freak-folk acts of the past.
-By Andrew McNally