After two successful albums, that seemed to toe the line precariously between singer-songwriter and the spiritual successor of Neutral Milk Hotel, Bon Iver are back. True to form, they seemed to have thrown caution to the wind and, yet again, changed sound and style on 22, A Million.
After the release of 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the band went on hiatus, came back again, had a song featured on the soundtrack of Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, and somewhere along the way seemed to have found a vault of samplers and synthesisers.
The album’s opener – 22 (OVER SooN) sees their new toys put to good use, with the name of the track sampled and played behind band founder Justin Vernon’s trademark falsettos. If you look, you’ll find guitars and horns, but they have definitely taken a back seat to the samples that add a haunting quality to the very minimalist track.
Minimalism is a common theme throughout 22, A Million. 715 – CREEKS is a beautiful 2 minutes of auto-tuned vocals and nothing else. 21 Moon Water is nothing but Vernon’s vocals and manipulated horn sections, and large sections of the album are nothing but layered vocals with the odd synth.
The album is one that wouldn’t seem out of place in hip-hop or R’n’B. 10 dEAThbREasT‘s pounding drums are reminiscent of the sort of beat you’d find on a rap mixtape. Add to this the inclusion of falsettos over synths and samples and I’m reminded heavily of the newest Frank Ocean release – Blond.
But this makes sense. Since starting out as a singer-songwriter, Justin Vernon has featured on tracks by Jay-Z, James Blake, and perhaps most notably – Kanye West. Kanye being another artist who dove deeper in to synths and samples with every studio release.
By the time I reached tracks 8 (Circle) and 45, I couldn’t help but yearn for the guitars of For Emma… I started to feel like Bon Iver have perhaps fallen too in love with sampling, and the sound they managed to keep alive on Bon Iver, Bon Iver had fallen by the wayside.
00000 Million is a breath of fresh air to close out the album. For all intents and purposes, this is a straight-up piano ballad. It’s just a shame that there weren’t more moments like this more evenly distributed throughout 22, A Million.
It’s easy to appreciate this album as a whole, and the new sound that comes with it. But at times, especially when listening to a single track, it felt a little hollow. Bon Iver have made a bold move with their latest full-length release, and for the most part they have pulled it off. Vernon’s vocals sit perfectly with the synthesizers and samples. But at times, I couldn’t help but feel like I was listening to someone test their new OP-1 for a youtube tutorial.