Album Review: Bon Iver’s 22, a Million

22, a Million, the newest album by American indie folk band Bon Iver, leaves the listener with an overarching question: Is there any border left between acoustic and electronic music? Although ambiguous as to which category it falls into, Bon Iver manages to respect both genres with a rich, homogenous mixture of experimental and traditional instrumentation. However, the album is a motley of songs that—both individually and as a group—build to nowhere, like a fleeting thought that crosses the mind at one point, but leaves no lasting impression.

Founded in 2007 by singer/songwriter Justin Vernon, Bon Iver has been the vanguard of the indie folk/experimental genre. Vernon—a Wisconsin native with deep ties to the American wilderness—is undeniably influenced by a guitar-and-voice acoustic sound that is reminiscent of childhood campfires, roasting s’mores, and long silences between experienced fishermen. Tracks like “29 #Strafford APTS” and “00000 Million” have obvious connections to the folk genre: banjo, acoustic guitar, three and four-part vocal harmonizing, and chatter and laughter among musicians before the start of the song. These elements anchor the album, preventing it from straying too far from the group’s previous releases.

During the five-year gap between the album Bon Iver and 22, a Million, Bon Iver evidently delved into the uncharted territory of experimental music. The use of synthesizers, vocal filtration, extensive sampling, and static-ridden beats establishes a distinctive atmosphere of digital haziness, a complementary frame for Vernon’s midwestern accent-tinged voice. However, a reliance on this ambient haze, while sonically pleasant, is detrimental to the album as whole. The songs have no build; they start from nothing, rise a little bit, and then plateau before eventually withering away back into silence. The fatal flaw of this album is that each song makes you expect fulfillment, but then leaves you unfulfilled. “29 #Strafford APTS” promises this build after four tracks of monotony, but by its end, the listener feels tricked by a false climax. There is no point in having innovative and powerful material if you can’t effectively put it to use!

graphic by <span class="credit credit- "><a href="/credit/"Nicole/" title="View all of this person's work">"Nicole</a></span>

graphic by Nicole Ng

However, there is one song on 22, a Million that caught me off-guard with a liquid, fragile beauty. “21 M♢♢N WATER,” a track aptly named for its flowing design, is set apart from the rest of the album because it owns up to having a lack of structure and uses that to its advantage, allowing itself to move smoothly without worry of transitions. My notes on the album read: “a medium blue rumble off in the distance, like a boat cutting ripples through water … sounds echoing out across the water, growing into a cacophony of ambient noise.” There is something eerie about the instrumental mixture of the song. Somehow, it is transparent but still retains a rich, reverberating sound.

Bon Iver, with the release of 22, a Million, attempted to do something drastically new and partially succeeded. While the focus on creating a wholly new sound ended up leaving the structure of the album in decay, the group took a major step towards pioneering a genre of its own. The divide between acoustic and electronic music has yet to be completely bridged, but it is an ever shrinking gap. Though this album may not be the greatest individually, it signifies profound growth in the development of modern music and is definitely worth a listen.

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