Since 2000, any time an artist makes what seem like fundamental changes to their musical approach, it has been tempting to compare the result to that of Radiohead’s Kid A. When Kid A was released, and Radiohead seemed to bury Jonny Greenwood’s guitars deeper beneath krautrock and IDM, the album became shorthand for “career reset.” Most recently, I remember that comparison being batted around with regards to Kanye West’s Yeezus, the anti-commercial followup to the baroque-hop of his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. So it’s unsurprising, given his prominent features on both of these Kanye albums, that Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, is taking his mentor’s lead and trying his hand at a hard reset.
I really wanted to avoid comparing 22, A Million, Bon Iver’s latest release, to Kid A or Yeezus. However, it’s undeniable the comparison is there. Vernon leans heavily into an expanded use of voice modulation, jazz instrumentation, and electronica throughout – all of which are prominent features of both Kid A and Yeezus. But 22, A Million isn’t all that far removed from Bon Iver’s previous releases, despite the inclusion of samples and vocoders. And given Vernon’s proximity to Kanye, the new developments are logical progressions rather than unexpected curveballs. In fact, the broken, glitchy 22, A Million bears more resemblance to the straight up folk of Bon Iver’s first album, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, than to the lush soft-rock of 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
A valid complaint of the self-titled Bon Iver album is that its maximalism and lushness softened the music – music that had a tendency to be soft as it was. Because while aggressive low fidelity saved For Emma from outright limpness, the studio embellishments on the self-titled album threatened to turn the music into gauzy ephemera. Interestingly, Vernon learned about those studio embellishments from Kanye and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
22, A Million takes that same Kanye maximalism, throws in a dash of Yeezus abrasiveness, and introduces an impressive level of restraint. This is best exemplified by the tension maintained on “33 ‘GOD'” through a balance of chipmunk vocal samples, piano, and banjos that’s blown wide open halfway through the track by a deep electric bass groove. And yet, not once does the album not feel like a folk album. Strummy guitars, even with all the flashy electronics and extensive voice modulation, remain the album’s backbone. Peel away the decayed hard drive sound of album opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and the song wouldn’t sound out of place played around a campfire. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Vernon had written “29 #Strafford APTS” years ago on his beat-up acoustic guitar, but on 22, A Million the song’s simplicity and string arrangement prettiness are undermined by the voice track’s metallic tint.
This voice modulation is often used as an instrument in and of itself, as on “715 – CR∑∑KS,” which has Vernon singing a cappella and allowing the vocoder to fill out the track. It’s not unlike what Thom Yorke or Kanye has done in the past. But while the immersion in electronic modulation and glitches seems the most apparent of Kanye’s influences over his ward Vernon, what’s more significant is how Kanye’s love of gospel and soul has seeped into Bon Iver’s folk. “8 (circle)” sounds as though Vernon took an instrumental from his 2011 album, ’80s soft rock and all, and rewrote the lyrics so a Southern Baptist could sing along, while final track “00000 Million” is about as explicitly religious one could expect Bon Iver to be.
Ultimately, 22, A Million doesn’t really serve as a sea change in Bon Iver’s sound. But the more I hear Kid A or Yeezus, the more I realize those albums don’t change all that much about their respective creators’ sounds either – Kid A was just Radiohead on Aphex Twin, and Yeezus was just Kanye on Death Grips. Rather, these albums demonstrate how difficult it is for an artist to move beyond what they know, despite their best efforts. Though unlikely to change any minds about Justin Vernon as a musician, 22, A Million is still proves itself as a strong Bon Iver release.