The long-awaited 3rd album from Justin Vernon’s most prominent project/pseudonym, Bon Iver, is another stylistic departure and progression into digital experimentation. The pained and breathy falsetto remains, but throughout 22, A Million, Vernon modulates his vocals through a software program called “Messina” (named for his engineer Chris Messina) that creates glossy, choral effects. The program was modeled after the Prismizer, a form of Auto-tune software pioneered by Frankie Starlight of Francis and the Lights. The result glistens with a vulnerability only found in Vernon’s mellow croon; from the somber folk of For Emma, Forever Ago to the melodramatic chamber-pop of the eponymous Bon Iver, there has always been a fragility to his voice. On 22, A Million, Vernon uses all the digital tools at his disposal to accentuate the fragility of permanence, of places and things and (of course) relationships.
Samples abound, and the production can sometimes leave the songs feeling synthetic, but every beat, blip, and glitch is intentional and painstakingly sincere. While the arrangements can be challenging, the poetry remains as significant as ever. Rife with numerological symbolism and biblical references, the album dodges between emotional release and cautious optimism, with Vernon’s wordplay reaching new creative heights. We have new portmanteaus (‘paramind’, ‘wandry’) and clever homophones like in opening track “22 (Over Soon)” where he quips “Within (a rise/our eyes) there lies a scission”. The song on this album that hit me the deepest is “29 #Strafford APTS” – a slow, acoustic guitar driven ballad with soft piano and faint jazz saxophone adding color, reminiscent of the Grammy-winning 2nd album. The final heart-wrenching chorus sees Vernon’s voice ascend to a whistle register before crackling into the static of the voice modulator: “I hold the note / you wrote and know / you’ve buried all your alimony butterflies”. In other places, the modulator obscures the lyrics and suppresses their sentimentality, such as the a capella vocoder exercise “715 – Creeks”, which contains beautiful imagery but lacks the execution needed to convey the message and ends up sounding a bit too much like what Imogen Heap was doing 10 years earlier on “Hide & Seek”.
Throughout its existence, Bon Iver remains a musical projected soaked in longing, sadness, and regret, but also hope and self-realization. Justin Vernon’s latest incarnation pushes the aural bounds of what sad songs should be, but after several listens he seems to have placed his samples and glitches in just the right places for maximum emotional gravity. I still prefer the sparse and ghostly acoustic guitar of the first Bon Iver album, but the lush textures of 22, A Million show that Vernon is still capable of reproducing the loneliness of that cabin in the woods through the lens of the studio.