22, A Million
Auto-tune & Heartbreak
by Jericho Cerrona
It was only a matter of time before Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) caught up with the cultural zeitgeist. Or, in true Internet-savvy fashion, perhaps the zeitgeist has finally caught up with him. The singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist's 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago, was delicate, hushed, and unassuming; full of acoustic folk ruminations on loneliness and heartbreak which unexpectedly became a hit. The narrative of his band falling apart, romantic relationship disintegrating, and a subsequent retreat to a Wisconsin cabin in order to write songs while getting drunk are so earnest as to be laughable, but again, it's this very universality, informed by that vulnerable falsetto, which endeared him to a legion of listeners. Of course, the record made Vernon into an indie icon; the image of an ordinary guy, his acoustic guitar, and lots of booze translating into a bonafide success story. After For Emma, he worked with Kayne West, Bruce Hornsby and others, and even won a Grammy for 2011's Bon Iver, Bon Iver which all begs the question; just who the hell is Justin Vernon and why has success got him so panic-stricken?
The narrative of the reluctant pop or rock star is a well-worn trajectory, and Bon Iver's latest album 22, A Million grafts that idea onto his most purposefully obtuse work yet; a hodgepodge of vocoder effects, percussion, and electronic overlays which inevitably still sounds very much like Bon Iver under a fog of pretense. Whether that's a good or bad thing is debatable--Vernon's upper register croon has always been a bit divisive--and here he compounds the issue by giving into auto-tune manipulation; resulting in something that will likely be fawned over for its ambition alone. If For Emma was Vernon's embrace of death and Bon Iver his resurrection story, then 22, A Million is what happens one is floating around in the afterlife trying to communicate with mere mortals who simply can't hear you. Call it Vernon's Kid A; with stuttering production, digital effects, and symbolic imagery all adding up to skeletal song structures which refuse to cohere.
The real problem with 22, A Million is that Vernon has absorbed his various influences and then attempted to channel them through his own navel-gazing sense of earnestness, which is a mix that just doesn't feel natural. The move into more electronic territory is no big surprise, just as the 80s soft rock pastiche he toyed with on Bon Iver was all the rage five years ago (actually, that kind of retro kitsch is still in vogue), but maybe all that time Vernon spent hanging with Kayne has encouraged him to take a page from the 808s & Heartbreak playbook. Gone is any semblance of relatable fears or common refrains, replaced here by herky-jerky digital production, wailing sax, and the aforementioned auto-tune trickery. A more experimental Bon Iver isn't a bad thing on paper, and there are moments here; such as TV on the Radio-esque chorus of "33 God", the gently plucked acoustics of "29 #Strafford APTS", and the Twin Shadow-sounding crooning swagger of "666", when Vernon hits on some compelling ideas. However, at 34 minutes, the album is much too truncated to make an impact. It's almost as if he took a bunch of intriguing instrumental concepts, layered some purposefully muddy production over them, and then tweaked his vocals in order to fool listeners into thinking there's something profound going on behind the noise.
Bon Iver's strengths, for better or worse, have always been about a certain kind of directness, and the real failure of 22, A Million is that it never connects on an emotional or visceral level. It will likely be praised, like Kid A before it, for being a piece of experiential art requiring multiple listens to fully appreciate, but unlike Tom Yorke, Vernon doesn't possess an aura of mythical darkness. He's just an ordinary guy still stuck in that Wisconsin cabin listening to James Blake, Kayne West, and Bruce Hornsby; wondering just what the hell to do about all this success.