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April 2020

First Listen: Bon Iver - 22, A Million

We’ve listened to the new Bon Iver record, and it’s truly something else
Published: 7:53 pm, September 28, 2016
First Listen: Bon Iver - 22, A Million
Ahh Bon Iver. Even saying those two words sends people into a mesmeric daze - a blissful high that glazes your eyes over and leaves you reminiscing about crying into a pillow with ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ blaring out, empty packets of Hula Hoops scattered around the room and the lights dimmed to pitch darkness.

Oh - just us then?

Yet that’s the exact power and importance of a Bon Iver record. It’s been 5 years since the release of their self-titled second record, which brought into colour the flourishes and future of a project that initially formed as a way to overcome the heartache and sheer loneliness hiding in the abyss after love has been lost. It’s been a method of communication for Justin Vernon to expel his darkest fears, the crippling anxieties and bittersweet highs that come through his own mind, and through that has found an audience that’s been longing for such honesty and bravery. What he’s created, is two sensational albums, varied and different but ultimately held together by a core understanding of what Bon Iver is, and what it means to so many people.

How to then follow that? A question which for a long time was answered with “Don’t”. Why try to follow up something so natural, force yourself into embarking on a new journey when there isn’t one laid out. Why try to write a new chapter to a book that’s got no more stories to tell. Why try and distill human emotion into 10 tracks when you’ve already done it so well?

It’s that last question which as preyed heavy on the mind of Justin Vernon, one that has seen him break down on stranded beaches. When it’s your mind and experiences that so many draw towards, that pressure to not only deliver but survive can become unbearable. From that, comes ’22, A Million’ - that next chapter the world has been waiting for.

At just over 35 minutes long, it’s a succinct record of compressed and distorted ventures into folk, atmospheric electronica and blues - all coated with a digitalised sense of the modern world but always packed with emotion and soul, the emotion and soul that’s made Bon Iver what it is today. More than just a person, a band - but it’s own entity. Gurgling to stay above water, it captures humanity in 2016 and pulls you in to see it more clearly - examining love, fear and our own existence through the lens of pain and brutal self-evaluation.

22 (OVER S∞∞N)

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The chilling refrain of “it might be over soon” rings out from one of the first tracks the world heard from the record, and its swooning power remains intact on each and every listen. Its mournful tone is balanced with an uplifting energy, as an urgent and unravelling glisten soothes over sax twists and left field samples, looking upwards instead of down towards the darkness.

10 d E A T h b R E a s T

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One of the more erratic sounding numbers on the record, ’10 d E A T h b R E a s T ’ is a Kanye-influenced march, veering towards defiant and cracking rhythms and the most unhinged Vernon has sounded on any record so far as he cries ‘i’ll wrap you up’ repeatedly over each desperate declaration.

715 - CRΣΣKS

What’s becoming clear throughout is the slight shift in autotune used, compared with the previous two Bon Iver records. ‘715 - CRΣΣKS’ strips away the varied instrumentation for Vernon pouring emotion into an autotuned accapella plea. It highlights that stark honesty Vernon has become acclaimed for, with lines like ’I know you felt right out my grasp, I had you in my hands’, ‘Oh how are we gonna cry, cos’ it once might not mean something’ and ‘Honey understand I’ve been left here in the reeves, all i’m trying to do is keep my feet up off the creeks’ hitting like a ton of bricks. Stripped back to the muscles in his throat, the hit of ‘turnaround you might need to’ is an immediate heartbreaker.

33 “GOD”

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If you could describe just one Bon Iver record as charming - it would be this one. ’33 “GOD”’ is bristling with clustered warmth, coupled with an almost alien-like voice chiming in with Vernon’s for a devastating crescendo that draws closer to Sigur Ros epicness than anything done before on a Bon Iver record. An almost celebratory hook within an album full of conflicting hardships.

29 #Strafford APTS

Whilst the record is an incredibly full and ‘loud’ record so to speak, ’29 #Strafford APTS’ offers something more akin to ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ - but dripped in 2016 potency. Stripped back to a subtle fingerpicking guitar line, it’s another devastating reminder of the raw power that Vernon has - delivering that late-night look at the moon melody with open ease. His voice crackling on what sounds like the sort of recorded message you send an ex at that exact time, it’s nothing short of beautiful.

666 ʇ

The ticking countdown that starts the track opens up a scuffled blend of synths, vibrating drums and a panoramic array of sounds that delves deep into the shadows and races for the good in life. When Vernon soothes “I can admit to conceal, now thats not how your supposed to feel” - you can’t help but think of those wilderness years where he struggled to find a purpose with not only Bon Iver but himself. A real kick to the gut, even on a first listen.


Sounding like a reflective hymn layered over backwards instrumentation, ’21 M♢♢N WATER’, is a glacial descent into the corners of the internet that nobody wants to go - twitching and uncomfortable in its own skin. It’s that sort of discomfort that leaves you transfixed, as if its some sort of shattered message of emptiness distilled into the sound of healing. At parts it feels almost unedited, as if the emotions are simply too raw to be touched. The results are chilling.

8 (circle)

Another track out in the world after its appearance on US TV a few weeks ago, the studio version is simply majestic. What seems like a natural successor to ‘Beth/Rest’ off the last Bon Iver record, ‘8 (circle)’ stands out like a beacon of clarity in-between the sharp twists and distorted edges, and arguably sits as the most Springsteen-esque Bon Iver track you will have heard so far. Expect this to be a proper live favourite when the tour kicks off next year.

_ _ 45 _ _ _

After the stellar skyscraper sized epic-ery (if we can even use that as a word), ‘_ _ 45 _ _ _’ is a moment to head back to church. A true gospel-tinged back and forth between Vernon’s vocal (cleared completely of any effects to start with) and a vocoded saxophone, it’s exactly the sort of out-there duet you’d want from a Bon Iver record. A rousing and refreshing number, it sounds exactly like the last-drink singalong you’d get in a Mississippi saloon.

00000 Million

For a record that harbours such a degree of human pain, there’s a real beauty in closing track ‘00000 Million’ and its sun-kissed perspective. Built around a natural piano-line, you truly feel like you’re listening to the sun rising over the skyline, as the tale of accepting pain and what it throws at you strikes extra resonance in the cutting line “If it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm and i’ll let it in”. It captures the true essence of the record, and the sound of a man looking to brighter days whilst accepting the ones that have already changed him.

There’s no doubt that there’s more to take from ’22, A Million’. This is a record designed to be lived with and cherished, much like any Bon Iver record.

What’s clear though, is that ’22, A Million’ is undeniably a step into fresh and new terrains for Justin Vernon. Allowing creativity and the sounds he’s been experimenting on to seep into the fabric of Bon Iver has triggered a record that sounds and feels like one made for 2016. It has that all encompassing tenderness and vulnerability that fuelled through the last two records, yet seems much more immediate and direct in its delivery.

What it is, is an outstanding record. Justin Vernon has once again laid his soul bare, and once again it’s undeniably vital.

’22, A Million’ is out on Friday 30th September.

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