22, A Million feels like a nondescript blur. It doesn’t deal in structure, but in loose clusters of peculiar sounds and imperceptible words. Melodies come in sketches, and hooks are a curious rarity. Arrangements are frequently muddled, often to the point of obscurity. It’s a type of elusiveness that isn’t so much rewarding as it is mundane. 22, A Million is an unnecessarily complicated record: overly processed vocals, chopped-up lyrics, and saturated samples are the prime focus, overruling any instance of decent songwriting that you’d usually come to expect from Bon Iver. It follows a ridiculous trend that was prominent on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and carried over to recent releases from Frank Ocean and James Blake — for whatever reason, albums must now be messy, vague, and incoherent. The emphasis has shifted from being focused to feeling esoteric and excessively unconventional. Yet the best records from these artists — The College Dropout, Channel Orange, For Emma, Forever Ago — didn’t require obscure mixing or wobbly structures. Instead, they thrived on brilliant, dynamic songwriting, and this is something 22, A Million lacks. The best songs flourish because they are written with structural purpose, and don’t just consist of fractured vocals drifting through a melancholic space. Justin Vernon sounds separate from the World, buried by static and noise, and layered with jarring autotune. The lyrics, though fractured, are clearly heartfelt — yet I remain completely unaffected. It plays like a scrapbook of impulsive thoughts that burns on the campfire. Vernon deserves admiration for attempting to expand his sound, but both the vision and execution are way off. This is no development, but a fragmented regression: 22, A Million is the skeleton of a potentially fruitful album. Gimmicky production techniques are preferred to musical progressions, and it does not pay off. Of course there are lovely moments, but the lo-fi hiccups are too infuriating for me to get any real enjoyment from 22, A Million. It’s merely mediocre folktronica.6 10
Favourite tracks // 33 “GOD”
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Favourite tracks // 8 (circle)
I guess my recurring question when discussing this album is, ‘Why?’. Why are the track titles named in the style of a quirky EDM outfit? Why has someone thrown all the effects in their rack at a large majority of tracks (I thought I had a dodgy connection for the first couple)? Why have Justin Vernon’s already strong, soulful vocals been drenched in enough autotune to make even Kanye blush? Why don’t I ‘get’ this release like the rest of the Internet does? Bon Iver’s latest release shows a clear, striking difference to their previous material, and I commend the experimentation and breaking out of the mould that they’ve built themselves. That doesn’t, however, mean I enjoy the result. Though I largely find my criticisms with the former rather than the latter half, the pseudo lo-fi, over compressed, hard panned, autotuned, sample spattered, bleep dotted, and essentially messy production and aesthetic really frustrates me, getting in the way of what, in many cases, sound like solid, folky, ethereal tracks and ideas. The production does nothing for these tracks, at least in my view, usually actively detracting from the overall impact. “29 #Strafford APTS” is a prime example of this, marking the transition point of the album from fragmented to slightly more grounded, a really foul distortion ruptures into a peaceful, soulful track towards the end, seemingly without reason and I don’t think I can quite express how frustrating I find this specific example without swearing a lot. To make matters worse, many of the ideas that do whir into action have mere seconds to present themselves and expand, with many of the worst offending tracks hovering around the 2 minute mark. This often leaves them just as ideas, without any expansion.
By “8 (circle)” though, I begin to feel as though I’ve been overly harsh on 22, A Million, as I thoroughly enjoy moments in it and the horn section and layered vocals work really well. “___45_____” (seriously, these track titles) builds upon it and works in a twinkling banjo and produces the ethereal, entrancing sound that will feel familiar to listeners of Bon Iver’s previous work. The closer feels like a campfire, warming a frosty night sky, and pulls heavily from gospel and folk music, at which point I’ve warmed to the album as it has promptly ended. While I understand the desire to break out into something new, to make a statement and to give music a higher meaning, I still return to my central question — ‘Why?’. The changes to the norm here don’t seem to have purpose, and without purpose they need to improve the aesthetic or atmosphere of the album which, for me, they certainly don’t. I’ve also noted a lot of the hallmarks of many other ‘hugely anticipated’ albums that we’ve seen this year, whether it’s Frank Ocean, Kanye West, M.I.A., or even James Blake, faux-lo-fi production, fleeting ideas without expansion, fragmentation in tracks or throughout the whole track listing, needless overproduction all make appearances and all make this a lesser album for me. I don’t see myself returning to this as an album, largely out of sheer frustration, especially given the previous two releases I could choose to return to instead. This is one Internet frenzy I won’t be joining unfortunately, though to its credit, it has made me feel and think enough to make this one of my longest reviews yet. So for that, I congratulate 22, A Million.6 10
Favourite tracks // 8 (circle)