Monday, October 3, 2016

Bon Iver - 22, A Million Review

One of the biggest, most creative musical advancements of the past quarter century has been the art of sampling. Born with limited resources, Hip-Hop sought to the past, both musically and culturally, to find solace in something already created, in many cases because the artists attempting a revolution failed to have the means to make music themselves. Little did they know, that taking old forms of art and manipulating them in new, different ways would become the most talked about aspect of music creation in the new millennium. While Electronic genres, already based in digital artifacts, were quick to pick up on the growing fad, others, like the Indie scene, were hesitant to change, insistent on crafting handmade material. With genres forever churning in a melting pot, there was bound to be a time where even the most staunch of critics looked to sampling for a revitalized career. Thanks to artistic mastermind Kanye West, Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver, was introduced to this art through 2010's My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy. Since then, Vernon's intrigue into boundary-pushing has grown, culminating now in the controversial, perplexing, and vexed 22, A Million. The Folk origins of Bon Iver have broken apart, leaving shattered remains caught in the digital age.

Becoming an unofficial protégé of West's, Vernon's outlook on life has drastically changed. Along with, I'm sure, a trove of other things, it's clear image was at the forefront of that mentorship. Just glance at the slew of puzzling symbols on the cover or the numerical connotations found in the titles. Whether full-proof or not, attempting to rise in notoriety means turning yourself into an enigma. Look at any often-discussed album this year and you'll find stories, mystery, wonderment guiding the attention, not, as was once the case, music. 22, A Million's sonic palate, however, seeks to hold these same values, as the aforementioned vocal samples, taken from times far behind us, confound what many seemed to assume about Bon Iver. The progression from For Emma, Forever Ago and 22, A Million, essentially, tells the tale of someone transitioning from physical isolation to a mental one. Like his two preceding albums, Vernon sought to escape, this time, to Greece, only to be met with no palpable, life-affirming substance. He was left empty, the result forced him, for the first time, to look inward and find purpose, masking, or accentuating, his feelings with the help of autotune, samplers, and synthesizers.

From the onset, it's clear, based on 22, A Million's jumbled contents, that Vernon's mental state is a complex one. Some would say, depending on how they view the antics, overly artificial. Regardless, the outcome makes 22, A Million a challenging listen, and one that's hard to accurately judge. At times, it seems futile, merely taking James Blake's palate and providing a folksy touch with a dash of samples. At the same time though, Bon Iver's third LP seems forward-thinking, intwining numerous genres into a blasted cacophony of sounds, styles, and characteristics. Tracks like '10 D E A T H B R E A S T ⚄ ⚄' or '29 #Strafford APTS' decompose on themselves with poor, but purposeful mixing that watches instruments once admired for their perfection, including Vernon's vocals, crumble. On the other end, '33 "GOD"' and '8 (Circle)' take the clean integrity of Art Pop and run with it, creating swelling landscapes that move between set pieces, all of which are pastoral. There's even tracks like '715 - CR∑∑KS' or '____45_____' that surround an idea and obsess over it, the former Vernon's autotune vocals, the only sound present, the latter an instrument Bon Iver created, only executable with dual players. Ambitious ideas lord over 22, A Million, their successes sometimes unfounded.

This is seen on '____45_____' and '21 M◊◊N WATER,' which rear the ugly head of pretentiousness around for all to see. The former, heralded as Vernon's favorite, is actually the worst of the bunch. It's consumed by this new instrument, one that Bon Iver pats their back in creating, despite the piece just not sounding good. Then there's '21 M◊◊N WATER,' which meanders aimlessly, both sonically and lyrically, through Vernon's obsession of numerics dominating landscapes. These two, and others, in accordance with the cover and titles, see Bon Iver acting haughty, a surefire side effect of time spent with West before one's own thoughts. However, apart from those two efforts, the remaining eight songs all have something, at the very least, worthy of merit. '8 (Circle)' is the clear standout, easily in competition for song of the year with its wonderful progression, haunting aura, and gentle instrumentation. '666 ʇ' pulls in some Phil Collins-esque drums and slathered guitar riffs, building them all excellently over some scratching vocals that take some getting used to.

Then there's the beating heart of 22, A Million's past; those samples. Largely taking the form of warped vocal melodies, their importance can't be underestimated. While the ideas pouring out of them, from Mahalia Jackson’s "all these years" on '22 (OVER S∞∞N)' to Fionn Regan's "cause the days have no numbers" on '00000 Million,' are inclusive to Vernon's mental state, it's really their use that impacts 22, A Million the strongest. Acting as short, lost fragments in time, caught in the shuffle of self-reflection, they act as memories flashing back into existence. Even their typical pitch shift aims to reduce the sample to nothing more than a blurred memory, seen best on '33 "GOD",' with Jim Ed Brown's 'Morning.' Their inclusion helps to heighten the already strong atmosphere, while simultaneously splintering 22, A Million as a whole. Based on critical reaction thus far, Bon Iver's third album has done just that. It's caused a riff amongst listeners, dividing groups based upon their perception of the album. But really, success or failure, that's where art flourishes. Like their mentor Mr. West, Bon Iver spent their first two albums honing their skills before risking it all. The payoff may not be immediate, but I'll surely be along for the ride.

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