Some artists tend to find inspiration especially when their own existence seems to be dangling on string, when everything seems to break down and they’re left to find a new purpose, a new way of life. Justin Vernon, the mind behind the immensely successful folk-project Bon Iver, just seems to be such a type of artist. He’s a bit of a modern-day Henry David Thoreau seeking knowledge, inspiration and self-discovery in solitude. While Bon Iver’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago took its beginnings in a small Walden-like hunting cabin in Wisconsin, the first steps to their latest record 22, A Million took place on a Greek island where Vernon spent six months living on his own on the beach. About his time in Greece he says that he was feeling very down , almost like “it might be over soon”, a phrase which features prominently on the opening track 22. He didn’t leave Greece with a bag full of songs but with an eleven-seconds-sample (made with his OPC-1) and the idea that the new album would play around with numbers.
It ended up not only playing with numbers but with tons of other symbols as well. The album cover and music videos are full of crucifixes and other religious symbols, numbers, geometrical shapes; the rabbit-duck illusion is there, as well as rainbows and heart shapes. This, among many other things, indicates how much Vernon is pushing for something new as an artist. What many people don’t know is that Vernon has been putting out records for many years before his mystified break through record as Bon Iver. Technically, Bon Iver’s debut album is the tenth record that Vernon has put out.
Obviously, there are always many factors that determine whether or not a record is successful in the end, and luck can be a very strong one. But the most prominent feature that distinguishes For Emma, Forever Ago from the previous records is Vernon’s falsetto voice, which became his trademark. It has never been used as excessively in folk music before. He pushed for innovation again with the auto-tuned a capella track Woods featured on his Blood Bank EP. Bon Iver’s sophomore album Bon Iver, Bon Iver features a full band with heavy use of a wind section and electronic elements.
In their most recent release, pushing for innovation has been taken to a whole new level. While the former albums possess a very catchy melancholic and whispering quality, which Vernon describes as bit boring in retrospect, 22, A Million explores new ways of self-expression and stands out due to its moments of explosiveness, loudness and shouting. The new album is all about experimentation and exploration, both lyrically and sonically as well as visually. As mentioned before, even the symbolic artwork and videos of the album are unlike anything Bon Iver has ever presented; title names are spelled out in an oddly cryptic manner, mixing with their track numbers. And those are just the superficial features, merely hinting at what’s inside.
With this album, Vernon has turned the wheel on his ship yet again and seems to have slid into the scarcely inhabited genre of folktronica. And while he’s had a great deal of positive experience with pushing for unknown territories since Bon Iver started out, those turns are always a dangerous move. He might still be an indie artist but his audience has grown considerably, and so have expectations. This is the most challenging album ever released by Bon Iver, and Justin Vernon is being given the benefit of the doubt by most critics. 22, A Million is definitely not an easily digestible record and requires to be listened to multiple times but the premises alone suggest a thoroughly sophisticated piece of art. You can only hope that this musical journey might not be over soon. A ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ by an unresting genius.