By Joey Thyne
Folk music is a soft bed in which artists often grow too comfortable. In the recent folk revival, all a band needs is a banjo and a coal-mining outfit in order to be dubbed “real” music.
Bon Iver has always been on the cutting edge of indie music. In the past the band has pushed the envelope of folk, but on “22, A Million” Bon Iver walks away from it entirely. Recent collaborations with Kanye West and James Blake undoubtedly contributed to the band’s experimentation, and die-hard fans may be upset at the transformation.
The sound is a quiet maximalism. Here the band is embracing everything: sampled drum tracks, string arrangements, pitch-corrected vocals, saxophone solos, noodling synths and more weird sound effects.
Sometimes these elements come together to create something heavenly; other times they become congested and confused. This self-indulgence is further exemplified with the scatter-brained album cover art and the erratically titled songs.
An ever-changing palette makes the music enigmatic. It is veined with such intricate nuance that it is at times overwhelming to listen to. It has a fragile glitchiness, feeling like it could collapse at any second. This is either exhilarating or exhausting, depending on who you ask.
“22 (OVER S∞∞N),” the first song, is the best on the album. It softly builds, allowing the listener to slip into the madness without realizing.
“10 d E A T h b R E a s T,” the second song, is the worst on the album. The muffled drums and discordant singing are nothing but grating.
“33 ‘GOD’” is the most accessible song on the album. Warm piano centers the track as Justin Vernon implores the listener to “stay for tea.”
“29 #Strafford APTS” is gorgeous. A guitar is tenderly fingerpicked under several layers of vocal distortion singing a lovely melody. It is an example of the transcendent atmosphere that can be achieved by combining folk and understated electronica.
“8 (circle)” is a rich hymn. Throughout most of the band’s music, Vernon insists on singing everything falsetto. Whenever he sings in his natural register, such as on this track, it is refreshing and sounds fantastic.
“715 – CREEKS,” “21 M♢♢OON WATER” and “___45___” all seem like gratuitous detours. This would be all right if the album had more content, but “22, A Million” is brief at only 34 minutes. These songs stick out and waste space.
Bon Iver would like this to be its “Kid A” — genre-defining, expectation-subverting and groundbreaking. However, it is not nearly as realized. There are moments on “22, A Million” that feel more like doodles in a notebook than fully fleshed-out ideas.
The thing that made Bon Iver so special in the first place was the intimacy between the music and the listener. Unfortunately, somewhere in the midst of warbled vocoder and shrill woodwinds, that rare connection was lost.
All things considered, Bon Iver’s willingness to take chances is commendable. Even if the results are hit-or-miss, “22, A Million” is one of the most unique mainstream releases of the year.
Joey Thyne can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @b_e_nelson.