It was a sunny, summer afternoon as I drove along rolling country roads back to my house. The radio was blasting alternative tunes from Milwaukee’s FM 102.1. As the station cut to commercial, the radio DJ spoke a name I hadn’t heard in quite some time: Bon Iver.
My ears perked up as I continued along that road, listening intently to the message that followed. The radio DJ announced Bon Iver, a band that had not released a new album since Bon Iver five years ago, would release a new project 22, A Million at the end of September. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say I exclaimed, “What? What? Oh my God, yes!” to myself in the car, followed by a celebratory fist-pump.
Bon Iver has been a favorite of mine for awhile. Although the band had only two albums under their belt before the band announced an indefinite hiatus a few years ago, I still listen to both albums repeatedly. Frontman Justin Vernon created two special, emotional collections of songs. For a long time, I genuinely believed that I was not going to hear another new song by this band again. So when I heard the announcement of 22, A Million, it made my day. Having listened to it now, I can look back and confirm that my joy and anticipation is justified.
22, A Million is a departure in many ways from its predecessors. Whereas For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver were indie rock, this album is more electronic-based and experimental. When I first heard the first single, “22 (OVER S??N),” the distressed background vocals and repeated beats struck me and took me by surprise. It was a sound that I certainly did not expect to come from the band, but I soon found that the more I listened to this track, the more I liked it.
I also found this to be the case with the second single “33 GOD,” which is my favorite track on the album. The emphasis on percussion meshes beautifully with the lyrics and synthetic beats overlaid atop. It also introduces the recurring motif of religion, which echoes throughout the album. This is seen most starkly with “666 ?”. The tempo is slower and the instrumentation is less distorted to place emphasis on Vernon’s vocals and lyrics, as he sings “I’m still standing in /Standing in the need of prayer.” It almost serves as a response to the lyrics “We find God and religions” from “33 GOD.”
There are a variety of sounds also present in the tracks “29 #Strafford APTS” and “8 (circle).” The former relies more on guitar than the rest of the tracks, nodding the indie rock sounds of their past while focusing on the more processed sounds of their present work. It also weaves the religious themes as Vernon repeatedly sings, “Canonize /Canonize.” The latter features powerful vocals that remind me of a gospel choir. Vernon’s voice is a marvel, and the way he manipulates and showcases it throughout the album is impressive.
While much of the album does actually echo the sounds from the band’s previous work, I also think that even the more experimental tracks like “____45_____” and “21 M??N WATER” are executed well. Both feature distorted saxophone beats that emit an ethereal vibe while emphasizing Vernon’s vocals, particularly in “____45_____.”
The album closes with “00000 Million,” featuring mainly vocals and a soft piano. About halfway through, Vernon says, “I worry about shame, and I worry bout a worn path/And I wander off, just to come back home.” The lyrics sum up the band’s journey and how they have bridged this five-year gap between Bon Iver and 22, A Million. Vernon worries about potential “shame,” perhaps as the result of not choosing the “worn path” of his band’s former sound. He has also “wandered off” from the project of Bon Iver, only to come back to it. It is a touching conclusion to what I consider to be a triumphant return.
What elevates Bon Iver’s third album in its entirety is that it subverts expectations. The numbers and symbols in the titles are a clue to this quality from the very beginning. Justin Vernon is not afraid to take risks with his work, and the fact that he is able to pull off something so drastically different so beautifully speaks volumes for his talents as an artist. I am so grateful to see the return of one of my favorite bands, and I pray that 22, A Million is not the last we have heard. I certainly wouldn’t mind a few more surprises from my radio.