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'22, A Million' and the Dissociation of Bon Iver

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

In observance of Bon Iver’s career catalogue to date, each third can be easily identified through a distinct phase or impression: There was the apocrypha of For Emma, Forever Ago, the prophecy of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and now the martyrdom that is 22, A Million. While the martyrdom is certainly sensationalistic in some regards, there’s a reason for such nomenclature – following Bon Iver’s 2012 Grammy win for “Best New Artist” and “Best Alternative Album,” Justin Vernon desperately needed (for his own well-being, not for the sake of the masses) to shed the label of “indie god.” In a way, Bon Iver had become exactly what Vernon had feared – a proverbial gateway drug to the world of independent alternative folk rock. So Vernon simply “ended” Bon Iver.

The instantaneous termination of Bon Iver devastated many a self-indulgent millennial hipster, of whom had yearned for an Elliot Smith or Kurt Kobain of their own, and to most, that was Vernon. But being placed on a pedestal of overblown apocrypha and adulation was never a desire of Vernon’s, who sought not to appease the fervent masses that had deified him without his consent. So he disappeared, hiding in plain sight the entire time - five years of runs with the likes of Volcano Choir, The Shouting Matches, (the highly publicized) Kanye West collaborations – but never producing new Bon Iver, outside of a commissioned track for a Zach Braff film (“Heavenly Father”), which Vernon aired his criticism of the process on a handful of occasions.

All the while, self-ascribed Vernon-nites pined for more Bon Iver, but Vernon would assert with great confidence Bon Iver was on hiatus, stating that intense writer’s block and creative stunting had impeded the process of envisioning Bon Iver’s next iteration. Then Eaux Claires came along, rekindling Vernon’s Bon Iver creative kick, presenting two new tracks (“666 ʇ” and “29# Strafford APTS”), and the following year, running through 22, A Million in its entirety.

Thus, indie en masse was aroused by the ensuing prospect of a Bon Iver album release, but at what price? The new tracks and eventual single releases – “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T” – were utterly divisive and dissociative amongst fair-weather Bon Iver listeners, sighting the warbled vocoder effects and reverse percussive sounds alongside emoji-laden song titles as uninspired flourishes. But for the initiated and more familiar of Bon Iver faithful, the meaning of the peculiar track titles and hellish sound sequences were apparent – 22, A Million is the martyrous dissociation of Bon Iver as we know, all the while maintaining every tenant of classic “Bon Iver-dom." There are a myriad of reasons why a devout (with blind faith) Bon Iver disciple would assert that every single song serves as an ahead-of-its-time template that the next wave of industrial folk aficionados will undoubtedly imitate in vain.

22, A Million marks Bon Iver’s most impressionistic work to date, operating almost entirely upon an emotional plane. Songs like “715 – CR∑∑KS” delve into a single location that carries such depth and weight for Vernon that it seems as though there’s an attempt to masque the visceral emotion brought about by Vernon through the intricate (and magnificent) musical composition. Other tracks resemble the attempts at obfuscating emotion through synthetic flourishes, warping a distorted Vernon vocal to almost totally dissociate Eau Claire’s prodigal son, as he only provides the most intense and brief glimpses into Vernon’s past five years with little to no context, tracks like “33 “GOD”” being prime examples – “Staying at the Ace Hotel;” corporate branding, I think not.

Less observant listeners have gone as far as opining the newest iteration of Bon Iver is nothing more than bombast and old hat tricks of the indie trade, but one can only hope that such close-minded dismissal of anything other than For Emma or Bon Iver, Bon Iver will become withered and eventually dismissed within its own right upon a simple careful listen to 22, A Million. Where Vernon’s first two projects dealt primarily with the most outright of narratives in service of emotion and verve, 22, A Million focuses on the atmospheric feeling and synthetic grit to best service the project. While the primary focus of 22, A Million will likely never be revealed, as Vernon has become increasingly reclusive (or at least expressed his desire to do so) throughout the promotional cycle for the record, and tracks like “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” hint at a possible end to Bon Iver – “It might be over soon…” – 22, A Million will serve as the finest dissociation of Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, making it the project’s best work to date, and if things truly will be over soon, Bon Iver’s greatest album ever.