22, A Million: A New Step for Justin Vernon

It’s been five years since Justin Vernon has released anything under the name Bon Iver. Five long years. Their last release, 2011’s self titled, was a statement from Vernon, proving that he had perfected his mystic folk by sharing intimacy through a record that’s nothing short of mesmerising. It was what can only be described as a long journey for him, one that’s taken him from his teens to his adult life, finding himself being backed by a loyal global following and turning Bon Iver from an underground musical idea to music that is respected and loved by so many. The City of Milwaukee declared that July 22nd will be “Bon Iver Day” in recognition of Vernon’s Wisconsin and Milwaukee ties. With the release of a new LP on the horizon, Vernon has been sharing some new material but it’s come as a shock for many. After creating something so beautiful, Vernon has totally deconstructed everything he has built and is now putting it back together, viewing that beauty in a new light.

During the time off Justin Vernon hasn’t exactly been doing nothing. After the release of the self titled record, Vernon collaborated with James Blake in 2011 and finished a year’s worth of touring in September 2012. In January the following year, Vernon’s blues-focused side project the Shouting Matches announced they would be playing Coachella 2013. That same year, Vernon’s other side project Volcano Choir, formed in 2009 with fellow Wisconsin band Collections of Colonies of Bees, announced their sophomore album and a North American tour. Summer 2013 saw Kanye West release his sixth studio album with Vernon appearing on three songs including co-writing one. West lauded Vernon as his “favourite living artist.” The world caught a glimpse of Bon Iver in June 2014 when a track titled Heavenly Father was released, taken from the soundtrack for Zach Braff’s film Wish I Was Here. The hope of more was quickly shut down when days before Vernon’s co-curated festival Eaux Claires he told press that there are no further plans to record music or play shows under the Bon Iver project, yet during the Bon Iver headline set at the festival Vernon played two new songs… 2016 saw another collaboration between Bon Iver and James Blake before July came round and Bon Iver uploaded a mysterious video titled “#22days”. Just under a month later, Bon Iver announced their third studio album, 22, A Million. You’d think everyone would be happy, right? Wrong.

It’s not that people aren’t excited over Bon Iver’s return, it’s more that people are surprised with the change. Latest release, 33 “GOD”, has seen a negative response from fans mostly due to the difference between it and Bon Iver’s previous two records. 33 "GOD is in some ways a depart from the gentle and quiet folk, but still remains just as intimate and peaceful, opening with keys and auto-tuned layers of vocals. Complaints about the lack of “raw authenticity” that For Emma, Forever Ago displays is a snap judgment and is unfair. 33 “GOD” is raw in all senses. Its fragileness is still there in Vernon’s lyrics and vocals and is taking Vernon away from his comfort zone, expanding the possibilities of Bon Iver. It was easy to foresee the future of the project. Each record expanding from the last. 22, A Million will no doubt be the most experimental record, with new vocal effects and use of synths, though the use of similar vocal effects has already been heard in material, Woods from 2009’s Blood Bank EP as an example.

The intimate folk approach to Vernon’s music has been with him for a long time, since way before Bon Iver started. In 2001, Vernon released a record under the name "J.D. Vernon" titled Home Is. It’s twelve tracks long and features his sister Kim Vernon, his brother Nate Vernon and his then girlfriend Sara Emma Jensen. This is without a doubt Vernon’s most raw and intimate record. The theme of lo-fi continued with Vernon when he released Self Record in 2005, still before Bon Iver was birthed. Bon Iver’s distinct sound has been with Vernon for at least fifteen years now. Change within his music should really come as no surprised. During the five years without Bon Iver, his collaborations have proved his openness to experimentation. Years prior to the project prove his openness to experimentation. Hazeltons, Vernon’s 2006 release, displays influence of jazz alongside folk. Go back even to 1998 where Vernon’s high school band Mount Vernon show influence of ska with horns and offbeat drumming. Change is nothing new for Vernon.

22, A Million is nothing less than a step forward. It’s a parting from the Bon Iver that people fell in love with, but a new venture for Justin Vernon’s ever changing creativity. It’s hard to come up with an idea as to how the record will sound, but it’s never going to not sound like Bon Iver. It’s important to think, Bon Iver is a project, not a band. A project develops and Vernon is rebuilding his project in a new way. 22 (OVER S∞∞N), one of the first released from the new album, is a song that absorbs chaos and releases it again and 33 (GOD) is an intimate and thoughtful approach, resembling the confusion and anxiety Vernon suffered from the growth of his teenage fantasy. The next chapter of Bon Iver is a reminder of fragile existence. “It was the beginning of an unwinding of an immense knot inside. When confronted with demons one must hold up the mirror in order to see the other side.”