From the opening, crackling tones of Bon Iver’s latest release 22, A Million, it is instantly striking that this album is worlds apart from anything the group has dared share before. The presence of glitchy electronics and captivating new music technology is immediate, banishing any lingering memory of the cold, heartbroken guitar tones that softly eased previous albums into gentle life. Their place is now filled with the fizzing synthesizers and warped voices of 22 (Over Soon) that fluctuate in smooth auto-tuned pitch, free from boundary and ready to experiment, bravely stepping out and exploring previously unvisited territories for Justin Vernon and co.
The tone of the album however is more accurately set by the alienating percussion of following track 10 deathbreast, sounding like an assembly of acoustic guitars being fed through a chomping wood shredder, their demolished remains crushed and compacted into churning computerised sound. The power of technology takes firm hold on the album. Otherworldly features such as this demand attention, and rightfully gain it, as here Bon Iver moves from the warmth of any previous comfort zones they may have cautiously clung to. Now diving headfirst into the ocean of experimental sound with exciting confidence.
However, whilst this bold confidence will understandably earn Bon Iver the respect of many music fans, the overpowering intensity of electronics across the majority of the album ends up having somewhat of a reverse effect ultimately, with the more natural, structured tracks coming off as the best. This fact is reflective of Justin Vernon’s songwriting being his great talent, demonstrating his ability to create songs that have striking emotional investment, forming a world of stories that are intensely personal and heart-warmingly honest. Although these elements are all present here, they’ve lost their human touch in a maze of bright electric cabling and effects plug-ins that disconnect the album from the elements that give each track meaning. Problematically burying the stories at the centre of album under a thick, artificial surface.
The achievement of this album that must be recognised however is its ambition. Its decision to opt against the traditional instrumentation and structures of folk music that are expected and repeated time and time again, choosing instead to open its arms to a world of sound that before this point had been written off as simply incompatible. This choice does not come without setbacks unfortunately, and despite moments of brilliance the album never really fully commits itself to either genre of music, instead floating in a distant in-between world where both the intimacy of folk music and the outlandish nature of experimental are lost to the bitter thought of what could have been.
Words By Joe Austin