During a press conference for 22, A Million, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon explained that he’d been “feeling a lot of anxiety” during the recording progress, and hinted that the album would be an engagement with the future. Yet his response to this anxiety wasn’t to cower back into the safety of his trademark acoustic style, but to simultaneously deconstruct and reimagine his sound by embracing technology.
Though “deconstruction” implies breaking down, the introduction of electronic sounds has allowed Vernon to simultaneously strip away his music’s acoustic foundation and expand Bon Iver’s sonic palette. 22, A Million synthesizes archaic and future styles—or, rather, organic and synthetic sounds—to address and remedy the ailments of the present. This is an album that seeks mental absolution through biotechnological means; it paradoxically uses the future to cleanse, not exacerbate, anxiety.
The first sound on 22, A Million is a looping electronic frequency. It’s a sound that follows Vernon’s modulated vocals throughout the album, the foundation off which the rest of the songs sonically build. The transition into the second track, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” contextualises why Vernon chooses this drenched, layered electronic background: It makes natural sounds pop. The drums pulsate with a primal energy due to the contrast with the stable hum of the electronics. Vernon has found a way to accommodate electronic sound in a way that enhances, rather than detracts from, traditional acoustic instrumentation.
The layering throughout 22, A Million is meticulous: the subtle banjo chord on “____45_____” cleverly harmonizes with the electronic backdrop; the sample of birdsong on “21 M♢♢N WATER” intertwines effortlessly with the percussion. Vernon has carefully alchemised sounds that have the potential to become volatile when mixed, but somehow they remain stable. Radically opposing styles are reconciled until they become mutually beneficial to each other and the song itself.
Lyrically, Vernon takes a step into the abstract on 22, A Million. There’s little continuity, as the lyrics don’t follow a linear narrative pattern. Instead, he opts for a more clipped, seemingly random tack reminiscent of Thom Yorke’s lyrical approach on Radiohead’s Kid A, another album that famously and successfully integrated acoustic and electronic elements. Colloquialisms are scattered throughout 22, A Million, often juxtaposed with something more formal. On “666 ʇ,” Vernon simply states: “I fell in love/I heard about it.” Perhaps it implies that Vernon is encountering a new experience of love, or maybe the “I heard about it” line is a sarcastic ploy, a sly nod to his previous lovesick oeuvre. It’s in the simplicity that Vernon attempts to pinpoint the meaning in the mundane, in the everyday.
Previously, Vernon’s lyrics have been highly personal, narrative-focused vignettes, but on 22, A Million he moves into a type of lyrical minimalism typified by late modernity. Consequently, Vernon’s lyrics have become more immediate. The simple line, “I remember something,” on “715 – CRΣΣKS,” is impactful, universal, as each listener will have their own “something” in mind. By streamlining his lyrics this way, Vernon grasps the humanity of moments more effectively. Sure, there’s less detail, but this is an album intrigued by and engaged with emotion, where detail isn’t always necessary.
Vernon’s voice isn’t as sleek as on previous Bon Iver efforts. Instead of using vocal modulations to edit out imperfections, he employs them to make his voice sound more fractured. It’s a reversal that typifies the album’s unique approach to technology. The cracks, breaks, and flaws in Vernon’s voice allow his humanity to shine through a little more. By saying less and embracing fragility, He sounds more vulnerable than ever.