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22, A Million
Bon Iver 22, A Million
Released 30 September 2016
Producer Justin Vernon
Label Jagjaguwar
Length 34:10
Genre Folktronica, electronic, indie folk
Website boniver.org

How do you follow up your critically acclaimed, Grammy award winning, sophomore album? Well if you’re Bon Iver you go on indefinite hiatus and fuel rumours that you might never perform as a band again. It was a strange move for a band who was the darling of music fans and critics alike, but given frontman Justin Vernon’s penchant for writing songs in isolation perhaps a step away from the adoration was needed to ensure the band remained what he wanted it to be. Regardless of the driving force, they eventually reconvened (to the relief of the masses) and the fruits of their regrouping are found in 22, A Million.

To be blunt, those expecting a like for like follow up to Bon Iver will be sorely disappointed and I expect that the change in direction will receive a mixed reception from the fans. 22, A Million is an album corrupted; filled with audio glitches, static and saturated vocal effects as if some serious degradation occurred during the recording process. Even the track list seems to have gone through a malfunction of sorts with titles like '21 M♢♢N WATER' or '666 ʇ'. Vernon, it seems, is challenging the listener on all levels.

One thing that has transferred over from previous albums is the sense of isolation; the way instruments suddenly drop out leaves a haunting emptiness to the music. It’s evident from the off as the eerie refrain of, "It might be over soon" on opening track '22 (OVER S∞∞N)' suddenly replaces random drones in a moment of clarity amidst the madness. The glitches themselves add to the ambience; the way the audio crackles as Vernon sings, "you’ve buried all your alimony butterflies" on '29 Strafford Apartments' or his vocoder doused vocal, "Goddamn turn around now / You’re my a-team" on '715 – CRΣΣKS' drive home the emotional impact. It’s during these songs that you feel that the experiment is working.

Such patch-working of music and soundscapes can work well as proven by artists like Gold Panda but there is always a fine line between avant-garde experimentation and unlistenable fuzz and for brief moments 22, A Million flirts with the latter. The industrial drums that pop up from time to time throughout the album can be grating in what are otherwise generally sparse song arrangements and while '____45_____' might be lauded for the technical production abilities for vocoding the saxophone, it left me cold as over indulgent and lacking any real direction.

There are some beautiful moments on this album and when it works it’s up there with previous releases. It’s hard not to be taken up with something that mixes haunting with experimental but there’s a niggling feeling of the Emperor’s New Clothes about the album too. It’s not enough to praise the production values, ingenuity or level of detail if the overall feel of the album suffers due to their inclusion. The missteps are few but sufficient to take the sheen off the album.

- Brian Kinsella