The more things change the more they stay the same. Though at a surface level, Justin Vernon’s third long player as Bon Iver is a further quantum leap from 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, at its core there are clear lines from 2011’s self-titled effort, which of itself was delineated from the intimate, recorded in a cabin approach, primarily by a rich layer of bombast.
The key difference is in the approach to the production and arrangement of this suite of songs, and critically in the song writing. Vernon appears to be dealing in hooks, ideas and sketches of structures, rather than rounded, finished pieces of work.
One device lends an air of other worldliness to this LP. Vernon and engineer Chris Messina have developed a processer called the Messina; a device that can harmonise voice and instruments live. Through this filter, we are very much removed from the raw vocals of For Emma… Then there are the song titles; they’re a mess of numbers and symbols.
It could be viewed as a less than auspicious start to a record from an act returning from a hiatus that the core hook is Vernon confessing ‘it might be over soon’ yet there could also be an element of tongue in cheek humour at play. And here in lies a sense of conflict or eagerness to confound that runs to the core of this album.
In a way, 22, A Million could be construed as more raw and exposed than ever before, sounding deeply personal, and yet impenetrable, continually glitch laden, yet on the surface emotive, based on the delivery of the less treated vocals. There’s a strong start to the record, with the likes of ’10 Deathbreast’ and ‘715- Creeks’ building a degree of momentum, but that fades progressively as the tracks grow ever more sketchy, the determination to veer away from ‘normal’ instrumentation in favour of largely voice and sample based beds is initially an intriguing, but ultimately wearying one.
There’s a distant sounding Fionn Regan sample on ‘00000 Million’ that delivers a depth of melody otherwise sorely lacking in the latter portion of this record. Singular without question in terms of dedication to an approach but there’s aspects drawn from everywhere, be they samples or a sense of influence drawn from collaborators including Kanye West and James Blake, and even Bon Iver’s earlier work. When a guitar or saxophone breaks through the haze, there’s a sense of lift and dynamic often sadly lacking.
On repeated listens, this is a record that feels a bit jaded. There are more sketches than rounded songs, and it feels to an extent that Vernon is reaching for something that has not quite been realised. Good to have Bon Iver back, sure – but hard to avoid the sense that it’s a return lacking a degree of direction and quality control.