Bon Iver Disappeared For Several Years And Then Came Back With Its Best Album

When Bon Iver announced its first album in five years, 22, A Million, last month, it seemed as though the Wisconsin indie band’s frontman, Justin Vernon, had lost his mind. The confounding track list suggested that in the time since 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver made him one of this decade’s defining indie artists, Vernon had become obsessed with numerology, symbology, theology, and perhaps several different strains of marijuana. The new music Vernon unveiled at his Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival — located about a half-hour north of Vernon’s April Base Studios in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, where most of 22, A Million was recorded — was similarly discombobulating. The symphonic folk of Bon Iver, Bon Iver had been supplanted by blown-out breakbeats and anxiety-inducing synth screeches, and Vernon’s trademark falsetto was heavily treated with AutoTune.

If Vernon cultivated a Thoreau-like posture on the first two Bon Iver albums, 22, A Million seemed more akin to Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now — a dark, intense, steely-eyed stream-of-consciousness rant straight from the heart of darkness.

Suffice it to say, I was intrigued to hear more. So, I was excited when I received an invitation, roughly one month before the album’s release on Sept. 30, for a listening party-slash-press conference for 22, A Million at a new boutique hotel that Vernon is opening this fall in Eau Claire. Then, one day before the press event, Bon Iver’s label, Jagjaguwar, sent over an album stream.

If you deduced upon hearing 22, A Million‘s early singles that Bon Iver’s success — which includes two gold albums and a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2012 — had melted Vernon’s brain, your first listen of the entire album likely won’t disabuse you of that notion. The opening song, “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” is essentially a gospel number about either the end of a relationship or the end of the world. (Many of the songs on 22, A Million could be interpreted as messages to a woman or God.) Another song, “21 M♢♢N WATER,” appears to literally be about the power of math. The most abrasive track, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” sounds like an attempt to emulate Kanye West’s Yeezus. The strangest song, “____45_____,” necessitated the invention of a new instrument called The Messina, a special keyboard that allowed Vernon to manipulate the sound of Michael Lewis’s saxophone as he improvised in Vernon’s studio. The final result sounds like John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things as played by dolphins.

Even with a relatively swift running time of just over 34 minutes, 22, A Million is a lot to take in. But if you make it to the fifth or sixth listen, what emerges is Bon Iver’s best album — more vibrant than For Emma and less mannered than Bon Iver, 22, A Million is an eccentric, eclectic and thoroughly explosive exploration of Vernon’s state of mind during the past several years. Far from sounding musty or fussed-over in spite of its long gestation process, 22, A Million breathes with freeform musical and lyrical improvisation, opening up new worlds of possibility for Vernon moving forward.

Most remarkable of all is how 2016 it sounds. 22, A Million feels like a companion to Kanye West’s indulgent electro-gospel opus The Life of Pablo, Frank Ocean’s introspective and fragmentary Blonde, and Chance the Rapper’s industry paradigm-shifting Coloring Book. Whereas five years ago, Bon Iver would’ve slotted as “indie” and those other artists as “pop,” these albums illustrate just how meaningless such distinctions have become. This is a year when everyone is trying to make their own version of The Difficult But Ultimately Rewarding Classic.

While Vernon has never been a literal or linear songwriter, his latest lyrics are even more opaque than usual. At times, Vernon’s words seem like an attempt to replicate his own inner monologue in song form, faithfully rendering how one’s thoughts flit from one topic to the next with little rhyme or reason. The most notable example is in “33 ‘GOD,'” in which Vernon sings “I find God and religions too …,” briefly trailing off before barging into a story about staying at an Ace Hotel, (perhaps?) while in the midst of a panic attack.

If there’s a lyrical through-line on 22, A Million, it’s a series of vignettes that appear to be taken from a failed romantic relationship, which recur in consecutive songs in the middle of the record. In “715 – CRΣΣKS,” a breathtaking vocal exercise distorted with Auto-Tune, Vernon sings about an idyllic stroll “down by the creek” tinged by lust (“heaving in my vines”) and lingering bitterness. (715 is Eau Claire’s area code.) Then comes “33 ‘GOD,'” a luminous piano ballad bracketed by thundering drums and bass, which references an encounter outside of an apartment and includes a throwaway lyric (“I’d be happy as hell if you stayed for tea”) that feels like an inside joke. Then comes one of the album’s most wrenching songs, “29 #Strafford APTS,” named after an apartment complex in Eau Claire, which begins as bracingly unaffected folk-rock before slowly devolving into disembodied noise.

These sections of the record reminded me of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which forgotten memories and unexpected bits of data crash in from out of nowhere to distract Jim Carrey from the romantic trauma he’s trying to obliterate from his brain. For Vernon, however, it’s possible that he’s trying distract the listener from the record’s emotional red meat by front-loading the “weird” songs.

In the back half of 22, A Million, the album opens up with some of Vernon’s most beautiful music yet. There’s “666 ʇ,” a quietly anthemic love song with with a hypnotic piano-and-guitar pulse bolstered by upright bass and jazzy drums. (This song also contains what surely will be the album’s most quoted line: “It’s not for broader appeal / f*ck the fashion of it, dear.”) After “21 M♢♢N WATER,” a.k.a. the song about math, comes another highlight, “8 (circle),” a gorgeously open-armed soft-rock ballad reminiscent of Peter Gabriel or Sting at their mid-’80s height.

22, A Million concludes with “____45_____,” the woozy “dolphin jazz” song, and the climactic “00000 Million.” Just as “Re: Stacks” and “Beth/Rest” operated as respective summations for For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver, “00000 Million” feels like a clarification of all the unsettled wandering that precedes it.

First, some context: The making of 22, A Million coincided with Vernon’s estrangement from the music industry. When I interviewed Vernon last summer before the inaugural Eaux Claires festival, he still seemed burned out by the previous album’s lengthy tour cycle. He also talked enthusiastically about the the OP-1, a sampler-based synthesizer that allowed him to improvise melodies and incorporate snippets of found-sound no matter where he happened to be. Meanwhile, he claimed to have lost interest in the guitar.

Vernon’s OP-1 experiments clearly shaped the sound of 22, A Million, though in the summer of 2015, Vernon was still unsure about whether his latest music would ever be released as another Bon Iver LP.

“I definitely care about the Bon Iver thing a lot,” Vernon told me, “but it’s kind of my thing and there’s only so much time you can spend with yourself before you just become an asshole. So you gotta push it.”

By the way: 22 represents Vernon, as 22 is his favorite number. (“22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is also the first song on the record.) A Million, meanwhile, signifies everybody else. (“00000 Million” is also the last song on the record.) The idea (I’m guessing) is that the album title signals Vernon’s return to the world. However, “00000 Million” isn’t really an “I’m back!” song. It’s more like a hymn of retreat. Over spare, chapel-bound piano chords, Vernon alludes to record-business corruption (“Must’ve been forces that took me on them wild courses / who knows how many poses I’ve been in”) and nods to the pitfalls of celebrity social media (“I cannot really post this”). Ultimately, he concludes that “I wander off just to come back home.”

After poring over 22, A Million for about 24 hours — poking it, deciphering it, laughing with it, and playing the loud parts loudly and the quiet parts quietly on headphones — I drove to Vernon’s hometown on Friday to hear Bon Iver’s mastermind talk about the album. I was among about two-dozen journalists and radio station personnel invited to the press conference — about half were national and international press, and the other half were hyper-local, culled from area colleges and small-town newspapers. I’m not sure if Rolling Stone was in the house, but I know the Chippewa Herald was.

I assume a more traditional press campaign is forthcoming — but then again, maybe not. The event seemed designed to promote the hotel at least as much as the record. (Snap review: The bar serves an excellent whiskey Old Fashioned.)

After Vernon’s manager Kyle Frenette played 22, A Million once through, Vernon strolled out unceremoniously in a Les Miserables T-shirt and a Minnesota Timberwolves hat to a table set up on a small stage in front of the gathered listeners.

“I’m really nervous tonight,” Vernon admitted. He then proceeded to answer questions for the next 100 minutes.

Vernon explained that he needed 22, A Million “to sound a little radical to feel good about putting something out in the world.” He confessed that he almost gave up on the album in January, and that his friend Ryan Olson (of Polica and Gayngs, among other groups) “basically sat next to me and virtually held my hand through the process of finishing the album.” Vernon shouted out singer-songwriter Richard Buckner and Bernice Johnson Reagon of a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, to whom the album is dedicated. He enthused about The Messina, which was developed at April Base by studio manager Chris Messina and Francis Starlite of Francis and the Lights. And he hinted that he’ll be back working on new music while touring out west this fall.

No matter Vernon’s willingness to linger well after the scheduled Q&A time, what came through most clearly at the press conference was his ambivalence about promoting 22, A Million. He made it clear that he won’t be touring as much this time around. At one point, a reporter asked why Vernon’s face isn’t visible in any of his new press photos. Is he trying to cultivate a more enigmatic image?

“I don’t really love meeting too many people, because I don’t have time to be their friend,” Vernon replied. “Faces are for friends only. That’s what I think.”

In person, Vernon seems like the sort of guy that you probably hung out with for a while in college. He’s thoughtful and kind of goofy. He sometimes puts his foot in his mouth, but his heart is in the right place. But overall, Vernon is affable and funny in conversation. You’d like him.

However, when Vernon is quoted in print and his words are placed in the standard “pop star” context, he can come off as naive or even petulant. A friend who knew I was going to the press conference called Vernon “prickly,” which I understand based on some of his interviews, though it doesn’t suit him at all if you’ve actually talked to him.

When Vernon complained about how the big three music festivals — Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza — “are the f*cking same” in our 2015 interview, he was voicing a fairly mundane opinion that I’ve heard pretty much every single friend who cares about music festivals express at some point. But when Vernon expressed this opinion, it somehow registered as controversial and became international news.

So, I get why Vernon would rather not to do a press tour if he doesn’t have to. I think “Faces are for friends only” is a reasonable policy, and not naive, even if it doesn’t read that way. And I understand why Vernon has made an album about communication that many people will believe doesn’t make any sense. This is the upside of never leaving home — you don’t have to explain yourself to the people who have always known you.