Bon Iver, “22, a Million” (Jagjaguwar)
The eccentric in retreat isn’t a new character in pop, but it has specific meaning in 2016. The relentlessness of internet conversation has led to an implicit threat: Be everywhere, or don’t be at all.
In that framework, retreat begins to look like reason. And it’s never been clear just how much Justin Vernon — whose Bon Iver project exists at the intersection of nature, technological disruption and personal frailty — wanted to be heard in the first place.
In the five years between his last album and this one — his slipperiest and least tactile effort — Vernon has remade his own mythology. “22, a Million” is what happens when a performer who craved interiority re-entrenches after finding a spotlight he couldn’t shake.
His old approach has been interrupted, disinterred, exploded. The guitar, which was central to his early releases, is largely minimized in favor of percussion, electronic effects and saxophone. The vocals, which grew increasingly unreliable from his first album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” to the second, “Bon Iver,” are rendered even more unstable thanks to variegated stylistic approaches and new technology that allows for real-time digital manipulation of voice and instruments. The results are, in many places, as ethereally and lustrously beautiful as the best Bon Iver material but more removed.
Some use technology as a tool of correction. Vernon and his collaborators use it as a trigger for forced errors that become musical grammar. Vernon’s singing is more wide-ranging than ever before. The opening of “715 — Creeks” has echoes of Frank Ocean’s deadpan soul; on “21 Moon Water,” his falsetto slides into New Age territory; “8 (circle)” owes a debt to Bruce Hornsby, and on “____45_____,” Vernon is a bluesman, deploying perhaps his most direct singing here.
The music similarly dissolves. “22, a Million” makes “For Emma, Forever Ago” sound like a Mumford & Sons record. Because this album travels in so many directions, there are places where Vernon sounds unanchored. His naiveté has always been carefully studied, but sometimes here, especially in the middle of the album, it feels just vague.
For Vernon — or Ocean, or Adele, or any number of stars who take their damn time — keeping quiet is first and foremost an act of self-protection. It sets terms, blocks out prying eyes and grabby hands. But unlike Ocean, who returned with abundance, or Adele, who returned grand as ever, Vernon has somehow come back even smaller than before.
In a recent interview, he spoke about how the numbers in the song titles denote a sense of scale: “Being 22 is me, and then the last song being a million, which is this great elusive thing: Like, what’s a million?” Others might reach out aggressively to find out what that hugeness contains. But Vernon would rather continue to test just how tiny infinity can be.
• Bob Weir, “Blue Mountain”
• Regina Spektor, “Remember Us to Life”
• Banks, “Altar”
• Pixies, “Head Carrier”
• Van Morrison, “Keep Me Singing”