Bon Iver main man Justin Vernon isn’t a big fan of convention. He announced ‘22, A Million’, his third album, by playing the whole thing live at his own festival in his home town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Then, as each track was played, every oddball song name was sent to the audience via an app, with Vernon playing fast and loose with grammar and typography, rendering most of the titles maddeningly unpronounceable.
And it’s not just the names (‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’, ‘____45_____’ and ‘00000 Million’, for example) that make ‘22, A Million’ your English teacher’s worst nightmare and Vernon’s most wilfully experimental release yet. This is a febrile folktronica album which confounds and astounds in equal measure, melting your heart one minute and agitating your eardrums the next, but always baffling and beautiful.
Leaning heavily on twisted, vocoder-filtered vocals, it’s a world away from 2007’s handcrafted, shed-hewn ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ debut. It seems hanging out with the boundary-nudging Kanye West has had a lasting impact. The plaintive ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’ is wobbly, underwater-sounding a cappella that finds beauty in the ebbing and flowing of Vernon’s voice, while the crashing soundscapes of ‘666 ʇ’ sound like something found in a dusty, spider-ridden corner of Kanye’s hard drive.
Yet alongside stuttering glitches, warps and the distortion that peppers every track, occasionally making you think your iPod is on the blink, is a stunning gospel influence. ‘21 M◊◊N WATER’ is what we imagine church music from a thousand years in the future to sound like, all trilling flutes and dreamy sound clashes sprinkled with sonic angel dust, while ‘00000 Million’ is another space age hymnal. It’s all a bit mad, but utterly entrancing.
‘8 (circle)’ might strip Vernon’s voice back to something much more human, as beneath him rising chords make the whole thing resemble a wonky version of an inspirational ’80s power ballad, but it’s the otherworldliness of ’22, A Million’ that makes it soar.