The best song that Bon Iver/Justin Vernon is essential to isn’t called “Skinny Love” or “Perth,” it’s called “Lost in the World.” The penultimate track on Kanye West’s still kinda bonkers My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy generously samples the melody and phrasing of Bon Iver’s 2009 song “Woods,” going so far as to use the song itself as an introduction before shooting Vernon’s somber, Auto-Tuned falsetto into outer space, but with more processed choirs, massive drums and thundering piano. Reaching the end of MBDTF is kind of exhausting, but “Lost in the World” is worth the trip in significant part due to that “Woods” sample because without it, there’s nothing for the rest of the song to build and play off of.
“Lost in the World” also unintentionally shores up what bothers me about Bon Iver: Vernon is undeniably talented at folksy auteur studiocraft, but what he actually does with it is frustratingly limited. For how sculpted his music sounds, it often comes off as inert, and frankly too dull to mine for pathos. The, let’s call it “interest gap,” between “Woods” and “Lost in the World” illustrates this perfectly: “Woods” delicately stacks various AutoTuned voices repeating its lone stanza, but after 3 minutes of sad-man falsetto with nearly 2 more to go, I feel Vernon’s melancholia less and my own indifference more; I just want to hear someone’s ego obliterate and reconstruct itself over Gil Scott-Heron samples, blaring alarms and poems written to Kim Kardashian.
I feel like Vernon gets this. In case the insular song titles, wacko name, and “I’m really getting into numerology” cover art aren’t a tip-off, 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s self-conscious freak-out album. And at its best, it sounds like a deconstruction of the folk and 80s soft-rock mash-up that Bon Iver went for on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Here, Vernon slathers the instrumentation and voices on the album in gauzy, grainy production and foregoing verse-chorus-verse structure. Instead, songs drift into each other when they don’t start or stop without warning, and different elements like guitars, saxes, or vocals add to the chaos by suddenly reappearing/disappearing. The intention is to sound dissociated and non-linear, even though loopy instrumentation, obfuscated singing, and a blaring mix like this are all stock maneuvers from the Indie Rock Kar-razy Record playbook.
But shit, sometimes the playbook works. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” is built on a delirious drum loop, heavily Auto-Tuned vocals, too loud synths and horns, and backwards guitar like someone smashed Revolver and 808s & Heartbreak together as hard and loud as they could, and is downright exciting because of it. It shows Vernon operating as far on the musical fringe as he’ll allow himself to on a Bon Iver record, but succeeds by doing so. Opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” with its warm tape hiss, bright guitars, and gospel vocals on top of Vernon’s falsetto, sounds like a glitchy, pretty sunrise. Elsewhere “33 “GOD”” is 22, A Million‘s take on Bon Iver, Bon Iver‘s stately studio folk, injecting the latter’s grandeur with looseness and spontaneity that lets it soar higher. It’s delightful enough that I wish the song went longer instead of cutting off at 3:33 cuz numbers, man.
At other times, 22, A Million‘s choice to fire weird doesn’t work in its favor. Vernon’s engineer Chris Messina invented a new AutoTune harmonizer that gets used on acapella track “715 – CRΣΣKS,” which works for a panicked, broke down lyric like “Goddamn, turn around now,” but is otherwise insufferable on a track with a weak melody to begin with. “____45_____” uses Messina’s device on a saxophone that plays opposite of Vernon at his most natural, and while “Man sings opposite vocoder sax and banjo” sounds neat conceptually, it’s a lot less engaging as a listen. That “____45_____” follows the tedious “8 (Circle)” only hurts things since “8 (Circle)” represents the album at its worst: it’s a ruthlessly mid-tempo, sax-heavy, 80s cheese-rocker with layers of hazy mixing that barely goes anywhere. “8 (Circle)”‘s 5 minute run time feel like–well–8.
22, A Million‘s peaks and valleys flatten out over time. Although “SHAD Apartments” is engaging in fits and starts and “666 f” has interesting moments, they never gel as songs, and just sound half-baked. “21 MOON” is too committed at synth-inspired, soundscapey background texture for its own good, and after a tepid 2nd half, closer “0000 Million” comes off as a wash. The most damaging part of these back-half misfires is that they come on the album’s longer songs (both “SHAD Apartments” and “666 f” flail about for 4 minutes apiece, which yikes) and at a brisk 34 minutes, 22, A Million doesn’t have space to surrender this much of it to the doldrums.
I don’t imagine Vernon meant for 22, A Million to sound contemporary in 2016, but it does. If you’ve put together a knotty, high production value, sprawling album that reads as a nonlinear monologue (or a dialogue!), 2016 is apparently your year. You could name Kanye’s The Life of Pablo and Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound here, but the albums that 22, A Million remind me most of are Frank Ocean’s Blonde and It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot by Teen Suicide.
Blonde and 22, A Million‘s main difference is genre: outside that, they’re both long-gestating, isolationist albums that emphasize studio tinkery and stubbornly/frustratingly (YMMV) refuse to give into the pop instincts they tease out. I spent a month obsessed with Blonde despite the fact that you could level most of my criticisms of 22, A Million at it–that it’s stodgy, its drumless tempo approaches glacial at times, and it’s abstract to the point of formlessness. But Blonde, for me, works because it has songs: “Nikes,” “Self-Control,” and “Nights” have presence and melodic deftness, and no matter how (warning: overused music crit vocab incoming) ethereal Blonde gets, the songwriting, composition, and mixing are all solid. 22, A Million, meanwhile, gets lost in its own inscrutability.
It’s the Big Joyous Celebration…is 26 songs of low-fi indie rock/bedroom pop that comes to just over an hour (think of it as Mellon Collie and the Infinite Soundcloud), but reminds me of 22, A Million in its vignette styling, lyrics that seem like inside jokes with themselves, and how it uses garbled production to let itself be vulnerable; something looping and frayed but hopeful like “I Don’t Think It’s Too Late” could fit on either album. But Teen Suicide is willing to go for it in a way Bon Iver won’t; Vernon, as shown on the album’s back half, never strays from his folksy, plainspoken but kind of pedestrian approach to songs. Even dressed up in production tricks, vocoders, and numerology, these songs are just too nice to be as challenging and therefore rewarding as they want to be.
For its ideas, some truly great songs, and inspired moments, I’d say that 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s best album, but that doesn’t mean it avoids its predecessors’ pitfalls. Vernon, for all of his inventiveness, insists on too many feints and too little directness to make an end-to-end engaging record. He even pulls up short on this album’s weirdness; a weirdness whose “a band, but deconstructed” approach is only truly surprising if we act like Kid A isn’t a founding document for modern indie. Which is a shame, because 22, A Million is fulfilling when it uses unconventional sounds and structure to build toward something, and far lousier far more often when it’s content to mill about and make oblique references to God or relationships or whatever. The philosophical guts of the record borderline inaccessible if the music just isn’t there. If you’re all in on Bon Iver and Vernon’s music emotionally, then it can be a sweeping, mesmerizing trip through his head and yours. To the rest of us, he just sounds lost in the woods.