Ten years ago, Justin Vernon wasn’t succeeding. Just before he made his first album as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago, he experienced the loss of multiple things—a band and a relationship among them, so the story goes—so he burrowed, regrouped, worked, and wrote songs, proving to himself that he was still whole without them. Within five years, he had membership to elite collaborative brain trusts in both indie rock and hip-hop and a Best Alternative Music Album Grammy—and had stepped away from his band again. How do you make sense of all this? You don’t, but you might consider a divine explanation, if it helps. “It must’ve been forces / That took me on them wild courses / Who knows how many poses / That I’ve been in?” Vernon sings on the final track of 22, A Million, Bon Iver’s third album.
In the cover artwork and track titles of 22, A Million, there are symbols, so many symbols. There are mathematical symbols and religious symbols and an upside-down chair. Considering that the Bon Iver project earned its following in part by never putting to record a song that wasn’t overwhelmingly earnest, this comes across almost as a dare to the listener. Humorless? Self-obsessed? Melodramatic? Wait till you hear this, Vernon says.
As he did to loss on For Emma, Vernon reacts to chaos here by embracing it, then reflecting it back out toward the universe in all its absurd heaviness and heavy absurdity. And nobody will deny that 22, A Million is a mess. It is deliberately, distractingly cluttered, nearly end to end. “21 M♢♢N WATER” is a splatter painting of electronic and woodwind squeals with backtracked vocals; other songs have samples on top of strings; others have up to 150 saxophones. On opening track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and elsewhere, the sound skips and sputters, an operating system running too many tasks at once.
This is a wildly informed album, and that also works to its advantage. Vernon has been citing Bruce Hornsby as an influence since at least 2009, but while the connection on Bon Iver, Bon Iver was a fairly straight line, it’s a squiggly, twisted one here. If nothing else, 22, A Million can stand confidently as the only album to bridge Hornsby’s The Way It Is with Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak—or, at moments like the crunching beat of “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” Yeezus (on which Vernon was a featured collaborator)—so convincingly.
Plus, the album’s chaotic direction causes its few stark moments to cut through the clutter that much more sharply. They stand out like the occasional truth that’s profound enough to consistently shine and guide through nonsense—a symbol. On “29 #Strafford APTS,” Vernon retreats back into an easy melody. “Caroline, Caroline,” he sings to resolve it the first time. The second, it’s, “canonize, canonize.” He frames the two words as if these are the two greatest thoughts that his mind can conceive. So when a manipulated voice repeats, “It might be over soon” to begin 22, A Million, it’s a reminder to hold dear the peaceful moments, from someone who knows this better than most.