Every so often, an artist creates a masterpiece. A defining work that is so unexpected—such a left turn—and yet such a sensible progression. Kendrick Lamar’s "To Pimp A Butterfly," Daft Punk’s "Random Access Memories," Radiohead’s "Kid A"; these albums all broke the mold, spanned and blended whole genres and told magnificent stories. Bon Iver’s "22, A Million" is just such a masterpiece.
The story behind the creation of Bon Iver’s debut album "For Emma, Forever Ago" has become stuff of legend. After his life had seemingly spiraled downward following his breakups with both his girlfriend and his former band, Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, retreated to a cabin in the woods near his hometown in Wisconsin to live sparsely and attempt to rediscover himself and his purpose. Through a harsh winter, Vernon recorded the nine humble folk songs that would make up "For Emma, Forever Ago," which was soon released to remarkably high praise.
Much like the lore behind Bon Iver’s first album, Vernon’s third effort "22, A Million" tells an astonishingly human story of self-discovery. Indeed, Justin Vernon clarified in a press conference that the lyric “It might be over soon”, delivered repeatedly in album opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, refers to the feeling he felt when he was trying and failing to find himself. Vernon is recognizable on the track, but with heavy electronics and a chorus of saxophones, it is immediately clear that 22, A Million is something wholly different.
The story then properly begins with the chaotic, percussive “10 d E A t h b R E a s T ⚄⚄" and the a capella "715 – CRΣΣKS." Both portray the hopeless paranoia of feeling lost. The latter features Vernon doing his best impression of former collaborator Kanye West, using Auto-Tune to portray a person who doesn’t even recognize himself and eliminating all other instruments to deliver a feeling of raw isolation.
The next three songs, “33 “GOD””, “29 #Strafford APTS”, and “666 ʇ”, illustrate Vernon’s progress towards self-discovery and pay some tribute to Bon Iver’s folk roots. This tribute, however, treats the band’s first two albums as fond but distant memories. The new songs are riddled with electronics, vocal modifications and the chorus of saxophones, which continues to develop as a motif in the album.
Next, “21 M♢♢N WATER” creeps in with atmospheric timelessness. All of the album’s components are scattered as the track builds in intensity; the vocals, the electronics and the saxophones spiral out of control as chaos takes over. It’s reminiscent of Will Hunting’s breakdown and breakthrough as his therapist drills “It’s not your fault” over and over again. After the tragic yet cathartic emotional collapse, Justin Vernon comes out on the other side of “21 M♢♢N WATER” as a newly realized person with a startlingly clear voice in “8 (circle)”. The saxophones take to the forefront along with Justin’s vocals, working together to create a truly epic climax.
For the rest of the album, Vernon’s voice is almost completely unaltered, confirming that the album’s protagonist has finally found himself. Finally, the last two tracks make for a humble resolution to a magnificent journey.
In just 34 minutes, "22, A Million" tells a story that transcends time. For a piece of music so sonically foreign, the themes of Bon Iver’s new album are instantly close, relatable and inspiring. In short, Justin Vernon has created his masterpiece.