Popular musicians know better than anyone that audiences can be fickle. Justin Vernon's Grammy-winning Bon Iver project came to fame in 2007 with For Emma, Forever Ago, a stark, haunting, and ethereal collection of folk tunes that was followed in 2011 by the far more heavily orchestrated, polished collection Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Though largely a success, the second Bon Iver album was slung with accusations of selling out, of abandoning a sound seen as more "authentic." Unfettered, the third album from Justin Vernon and co. may be one of the most risk-taking and joyously self-indulgent indie rock albums in recent memory.
The enigmatically named 22, A Million is somehow both ramshackle and elegantly baroque in its construction. Harsh, sometimes glitchy electronics rub up against pearlescent piano leads and ringing guitars. Immediately from the creaking opening of the stunning first track "22 (OVER S∞∞N)," where chipmunk vocals bounce like rubber off one of Bon Iver's characteristically gorgeous melodies, there is a sense that the separate parts of the record have been collected, magpie-like, but assembled with a steady hand of a master composer. The track ends with delicate cascades of free jazz-influenced saxophone.
Free jazz in fact seems an important touchstone for the record, unsurprising given the contributions made by saxophone prodigy Colin Stetson. The breathy bleat of greats like Ornette Coleman seems to be mirrored not just in the frequent horn accompaniment that adds warm eddies throughout the record, but also in the crackling ambience of samples and distant sounds that float through the record like struggling radio signals. One of the record's straightforward songs, the country-tinged chamber folk of "29 #Strafford APTS" seems to dissolve or disintegrate into a miasma of just such a sound, and later on the luminous pop song "8 (circle)" emerges from the fog of the free-form, abstract ""21 M♢♢N WATER."
What's refreshing about 22, A Million is that it is completely unconcerned with existing frameworks and expectations about what a rock record should be, and not content to rest on the stunning falsetto on which much of Vernon's popularity hinges. The record is never quite straightforward, but it's never quite the experimental musique concrète by which it is inspired. With little more than a few autotuned vocals, "715 - CRΣΣKS" might be the purest pop moment, with a passion and intensity that is reminiscent of the fieriest R&B, but the intentional and overdriven artificiality never sits uncomfortably on a record that also features a beautifully tactile banjo lead and choral vocals on the shimmering "____45_____."
Everything about the record, from the song titles onward, suggests a disregard for accessibility, but ironically its prickliness serves to enhance its beauty, not cloud it. Like Bon Iver's previous work, it tends toward abstraction and suggestion rather than overt storytelling, so the sonic adventurousness is a bold step in a very becoming direction for the project. 22, A Million is a beguiling thirty five minutes that finds new settings for Justin Vernon's distinctive voice and song craft. Some may argue that a voice like his works in only one type of setting, but clearly Vernon is not content to stop exploring the possibilities of his music.
22, A Million is out now on CD, vinyl and digital formats.