For my generation, Bon Iver was the height and decline of “indie” music. Only knowing “Skinny Love” marked you as a fake fan, especially if it was only the Birdy cover, but knowing all of For Emma, Forever Ago didn’t get you out of the clear either. It was a record that no one knew and then all of a sudden everyone knew. It was a time when Vampire Weekend had a #1 album on Billboard, The National released one of their most critically acclaimed records, an artist like Bon Iver could win a Grammy for Best New Artist for his second album, and Arcade Fire could win Album of the Year. As Jeremy Gordon of Spin summarized it, “‘SNL’ parodies and single-serving ‘Who is Bonnie Bear’ Tumblrs didn’t lie—Vernon was simultaneously a part of and apart from celebrity culture.”
Of course, it’s easy to put Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver, into the “weird elite” world of indie music. I mean, with lyrics like “staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer,” you have to be pretty far down the rabbit hole. Pretentiously planned or not, and album track titles aside (because I don’t really even want to go there), 22, A Million is by far Bon Iver’s most ambitious record to date. It’s way closer to For Emma than his self-titled sophomore flop, with clear inspiration from artists like Phil Collins and recent collaborators Kanye West and James Blake, though for a record as oddly packaged and promoted as 22, A Million, it holds some of Bon Iver’s best material yet.
It’s a record bathed in religious and lovelorn motifs: two concepts difficult to describe. It makes sense why Vernon turned to symbols to encompass the album, that or just a blatant failure at trying to combine more visual art into the music making process further than the album cover (oh shit, I went there anyway). But other than making it harder to refer to individual tracks in conversation, 22, A Million isn’t just Justin Vernon discovering distortion or experimenting like some absinth-induced synthesizer built with acoustic guitars and chainsaws. It’s still very much Bon Iver.
Much like the love-hurt Justin Vernon found on For Emma, Forever Ago, the Vernon on 22, A Million is equally as lost, as a depression in losing both what love and faith mean to him culminates in the difficulty of having to find it all over again. He’s not as nostalgic as he was on For Emma or the self-titled follow-up; however, this time he’s more forward thinking. “These will be just places to me now,” he says on “33 “GOD”.” And it’s noticeable in the instrumentation, as a darker and more internal quest-worthy theme brings along densely layered vocals, incomplete sounding samples, and heavy, forward-pushing drums. The search doesn’t really come to a conclusion for Vernon, as it’s apt for Bon Iver to be forever sorrowful it seems, instead ending right back at the beginning, coming full (circle).
It’s a dark yet wonderfully, beautiful sounding record, and a great step forward sound wise and song writing wise for Bon Iver. “Over-hyped indie-folk-tronica” or not, Vernon’s right when he says “now I’m more than I am when we started.” It might seem a bit pretentious at times, but the dynamic has changed. “Indie” is honestly no more, and no “Skinny Love”-only fan is going to take this record lightly. There’s a new genre-bending mindset permeating through musicians these days, with certain similarities that’ve begun to poke out. Don’t get so wrapped up in at all, he hypocritically argues about the depth of the lyrics found in his music, “it might be over soon.”