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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Album review: 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s newest sonic masterpiece

On their long-awaited third album, Bon Iver break with the past dynamically, anxiously, and really quite brilliantly – tentatively hobbling out of their heartbroken woodland retreat into the equally melancholic, neon-lit city night.
From left, Andrew Fitzpatrick, Justin Vernon and Michael Lewis of American indie-folk band Bon Iver. Getty Images
From left, Andrew Fitzpatrick, Justin Vernon and Michael Lewis of American indie-folk band Bon Iver. Getty Images

Bon Iver

22, A Million

(Jagjaguwar)

Four stars

On their long-awaited third album, Bon Iver break with the past dynamically, anxiously, and really quite brilliantly – tentatively hobbling out of their heart-broken woodland retreat into the equally melancholic, neon-lit city night.

Principally driven by restlessly idiosyncratic vocalist and songwriter Justin Vernon, Bon Iver carved indie swathes with 2007’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago, an intimate, introspective break-up album of acoustic folk demos, recorded in Vernon’s father’s remote hunting cabin, following a protracted period of illness. Only 500 copies were printed initially – a handful were sent to bloggers. This sombre, slow-burning sensation eventually found its way into more than half-a-million homes. On the follow-up, 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, multi-instrumentalist Vernon veered into sensitive white soul, but 22, A Million marks an even more interesting reinvention as a startling pop futurist, surrounding his auto-tuned, multi-tracked voice in electronica swirls, samples and beats.

The album opens with Vernon’s naked falsetto, tracked in chorus, fragilely intoning over restless, wavering blips, twinkling guitars and a sampled vintage gospel record on 22 (Over S∞∞N). Gitchy bass warbles and big-band brass do battle on the brilliant nu-R&B ramble, 10 Death Breast.

This battle between technology and tradition haunts the record; a spiralling off-kilter jazz sax is looped and digitised as 21 M◊◊n N Water plays out, the horn’s raw, blown tone slowly sucked of its soul and life force.

There’s more than a passing hint to Frank Ocean in the album’s smouldering, spacey, formless, textures – especially evident in the sad a cappella swoon of 715 – Cr∑∑ks. Every oblique song title has been twisted, digits forced in – a visual representation of the record’s corrupting digitisation.

In 33 “GOD”, the heavily manipulated background vocals sound like the little green aliens from Toy Story, one of the numerous barmy touches that somehow work because they are not senseless additions, but essential components of the record’s rich sonic canvas.

Acoustic guitars do make an appearance on the winsome, fingerpicked 29 #Strafford APTS, a rare pastoral break in this relentlessly urban sprawl.

Closer 00000 Million offers a melancholic piano-led meditation that makes some final, abrupt peace with Vernon’s past.

There is even a head nod to American folk song in ____45_____ – over plucked with banjo, Vernon’s voice is layered, electronically stretched and distorted – the sound of technology twisting nervous pirouettes with tradition.

Where Vernon goes next is anybody’s guess, but close to 10 years since emerging from his wooded retreat, this singular indie auteur may have just unleashed his masterpiece.

rgarratt@thenational.ae