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22 Things about ’22, A Million’

and | Thursday, October 6, 2016

There are a million things we could say about Bon Iver’s highly anticipated new album “22, A Million,” but we narrowed them down to these 22 for your convenience:

  1. 22, A Million?: The first thing that jumps out about this album is its title. It immediately evokes the question “But why?” The answer to this question is shown through the composition of the track listings. The first song on the album — “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” — is the source of the 22 and the last song — “00000 Million” — provides “a million.” Mystery solved. 
  2. A different sound: This album still features the acoustic guitar and falsetto vocals that made us love Justin Vernon in the first place. However, these elements are mostly buried under a sea of distortion, digital effects and Auto-Tune. The result is analogous to the “real fruit juice” that lurks undetected beneath a sugary soft drink.
  3. A quick burst of sound: This much-anticipated 10-track album clocks in at a short 34 minutes. Half of the songs are less than 3 1/2 minutes in length. It is a bit disappointing for fans who have waited five years to hear new material from Bon Iver, especially since the album offers many solid tracks and leaves the listener wanting more.
  4. Song structure: This album leaves no ambiguity about its experimental ambitions, so it was a little disappointing to notice that for all the studio wizardry, the songs were mostly two- to four-minute verse-chorus-verse affairs.
  5. 22 (OVER S∞∞N): Both the first track of the album and the first single to be released, this song clearly occupies a very prominent spot in “22, A Million.” Although the heavily treated intro was a bit much, the song improves greatly when the heartfelt vocals are joined by cleverly restrained acoustic strums, a well-placed sample and finally a saxophone solo. The song is really a preview of everything the album is: a combination of many disparate elements, overly produced at times, yet still compelling.
  6. 10 dEAThbREasT ⚄ ⚄: With a title like this you expect to hear to some weird things, and from the get-go of the second track you do. At first, it sounds as though you are listening to an underwater drum machine running through a subwoofer, and there is something unsettling about it. But as other sounds get placed into the track, the subwoofer sound begins to fit rhythmically into the feel of the song and even mirrors the hostility of the lyrics.
  7. 8 (circle): By our estimation, the eighth track is the best song on the album because it’s able to use all the different aspects of the album to create a song that showcases the ever-evolving sound of Bon Iver. The song holds that folk sound that helped Bon Iver rise to prominence while still using the experimental sound that envelops the album. This is likely the best bridge song for someone who is hesitant to embrace the new Bon Iver sound.  
  8. 715 – CR∑∑KS: The fatal flaw of the third track is too much Auto-Tune. In a very Kanye West manner, Vernon decided to Auto-Tune his voice for the track’s entirety. Even though almost all the other songs on the album incorporate some form of digital voice modulation and offer a very different feel from Bon Iver’s previous material, the power of Vernon’s falsetto, which can be heard throughout the album, is underutilized here.  
  9. Drumming: Most of the songs on the album are bereft of drums, a feature that is especially frustrating for an avid finger drummer, but there are a few songs that do cleverly incorporate a drum set. The first song to do so is “33 ‘GOD,’” which introduces an open-studio-sounding drumset halfway through the song. The drums in this song add to the immediacy of the lyrics and the internal conflict that the lyrics present. “8 (circle)” uses the drums for the same effect as “33 ‘GOD,’” which helps in making the song not seem as though it’s dragging along. Our personal favorite use of the drums was in “666 ʇ.” Being the Genesis and Tarzan soundtrack lovers that we are, we could not help but notice that the song uses Phil Collins-esque rolling drum fills to create a song that climaxes with the pounding of the drums, reflecting the tumultuous themes of the song.
  10. Horns: Since the days of Chuck Berry, guitar intros have been the traditional way to begin a song. Horns have been an accepted member of the rock canon for a while, but the horn intros used on “8 (circle)” and “____45_____” are very new. This was one of the best innovations of the album, and it didn’t even require a computer.
  11. $⥀NG T1TLΣ$: We simply couldn’t stand the overly pretentious song titles. We get that music is a pretentious discipline by nature, but it’s still disappointing every time a good artist pulls another dumb stunt like this in some muddled attempt to add significance to their music. What’s next, a crossword puzzle that we have to complete to even find out what the song titles are? Let e.e. cummings be e.e. cummings, and focus on Bon Iver being Bon Iver.
  12. Praiseworthy lyrics: This album is filled with a lot of seemingly nonsensical lyrics that most people, ourselves included, will not understand. But one song that’s lyrics stood out to us was “10 dEAThbREasT ⚄ ⚄.” The lyrics, Darling don’t make love / Fight it / Love, don’t fight it / Love, don’t fight it / Love … ” reveal a person who has been, like many, hurt by the trials of love and who now harbors conflicting feelings about love itself.
  13. More praiseworthy lyrics: The lyrics on this album don’t make a lot of sense, so it’s clear that Vernon chose them for how they sound, rather than what they mean. He does an especially good job of this on “29 #Strafford APTS,” where “canonize” and “paramind” each perfectly occupy the space between chorus and verse. The production effects used on the lyrics of this song are also noteworthy, as the distortion of Vernon’s voice suggests that a desperate attempt at communication has failed. This, we believe, was the sound Vernon was going for throughout the album. He overshot the mark sometimes, but it hits home here.
  14. The Power of Kanye: In his 2010 album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” Kanye West featured Vernon as a writer or vocalist in three tracks and the music world let out a collective: “Huh?” Three years later, West once again reached out to Vernon to help him write three songs on “Yeezus.” In an August 2016 interview with BBC Radio 1, Kanye said, “[Vernon] is my favorite living artist — I love Justin the way Kanye loves Kanye.” Vernon believes West has been at the forefront of music for a while now and said in an interview with The Guardian that Kanye’s messages about self-love helped Vernon overcome anxiety and take care of his own creative needs. West’s influence can be heard in Vernon’s willingness to use Auto-Tune as well as employing non-instrumental sounds into his songs.
  15. Sampling: Another sign of West’s influence on this album was Vernon’s use of samples, a technique not employed on any of his previous releases. Six of the 10 songs on this album contain samples, which we found to be a nice touch. Sampling is a good way to add variety to a recording, so it’s fitting that Vernon used it when he is so obviously interested in creating a new sound.
  16. Is this the “Kid A” of folk?: The comparisons between this release and the greatest album ever are fairly easy to draw: Both were made by a band that had already gained great success with a certain sound, both reflected conscious abandoning of that sound and both drew heavily on the enormous powers of the studio to alter natural sound. The fact that innovative albums are still being compared to Radiohead’s fourth release speaks to the influence of that album, and Vernon’s songwriting simply doesn’t measure up to the English quintet. However, this album is also another “Bringing It All Back Home” in the sense that just as Bob Dylan made the decision to embrace technological progress by including electric guitar, Vernon has also taken a crucial step forward technologically.
  17. Folktronica?: NPR critic Will Hermes wrote a fantastic article suggesting that “22, A Million” was not folktronica, as many have characterized it, but rather just folk. He points out that folk is the music of the people, and virtually everyone has access to software with which to make electronic music. Understanding this point really clarifies what music is in the 21st century and how “22, A Million” fits into it.
  18. (Cover) Art imitates sound: The artwork for the album was created by Brooklyn-based artist Eric Timothy Carlson and really reflects the overall feel of the album itself. The most prominent feature of the cover artwork is the yin-yang square in the middle of the cover. This symbol captures the essence of the mix of folk and electronic music and also comments on an album that has songs whose titles are diametrically opposed, e.g. “33 God” and “666 ʇ.” Surrounding the yin-yang square is a collection of seemingly unrelated drawings. These drawings range from religious images to animal drawings to the pesky duck-rabbit image. This collection of drawings also reflects the seemingly random amalgamation of sounds that listeners hear in the album.
  19. A crazy cover: Is the cover interesting to look at? Certainly. Is it useful for anything other than distracting a small child? Probably not. Like the song titles, the cover felt like it was trying too hard, but then again lots of great albums have bad cover art.
  20. Personnel: There are 22 listed personnel on the album, from musicians to writers to sound mixers. This is more of a funny coincidence than anything else, but one that we found interesting nonetheless.
  21. Christian’s final thoughts: For me, this was an album of hits and misses. Sometimes the horns sounded great, sometimes they didn’t. Occasionally the drumming was impressive, often it wasn’t. Many times the effects were great, but sometimes they were overkill. When an album attempts to be both great and experimental, it simply cannot miss as much as Bon Iver has here, so what we’re left with is a very different sounding, pretty good work.
  22. Carlos’ final thoughts: Bon Iver has come a long way from its “Skinny Love” days, but that does not have to be a bad thing. This album reveals a whole new side to Bon Iver’s musical stylings and for the most part it is enjoyable. Vernon’s ability to incorporate a variety of electric and nonelectric instruments into the album offers a pleasant juxtaposition of sound. Vernon’s signature falsetto voice shines throughout most of the album because it tends to pair nicely with the use of ambient sounds. The two dark spots of the album are “715 – CRΣΣKS,” and “21 M♢♢N WATER,” which are too sonically disorganized to be enjoyable.  

Shamrocks rating: 4.25

If you like: Sufjan Stevens’ “The Age of Adz,” Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief”

Key tracks: “8 (circle),” “33 GOD,” “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”

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