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Bon Iver’s 22, A Million is the next step in the band’s electronic progression

Bon Iver.
Bon Iver.
Cameron Wittig and Crystal Quinn
Bridgett Henwood is the supervising story editor at Vox, managing editorial coverage for Vox's YouTube channel of over 11 million subscribers.

Bon Iver’s new album 22, A Million starts with one repeating note, a single finger on a wavering synth. Seconds later, on the opening track, “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” Justin Vernon’s chopped up, auto-tuned voice presents the song’s thesis: “It might be over soon.” This mantra, Vernon says, means “the bad stuff might be over soon, but maybe the good stuff might be over soon.”

The takeaway: “You’d better figure out how to enjoy this life and participate in it.”

Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, has spent nearly a decade working out how his music fits this equation of enjoyment and participation. Part of this sense of impending finality — the idea that the “good stuff” might be over soon — means that Vernon pushes Bon Iver further musically on every album. And 22, A Million, the band’s third album, is no exception. Bon Iver have put out three albums since 2006, and Vernon’s motivation to produce something authentic before it’s too late drives each of them into a new, uncharted place.

For Emma from a cabin in the woods

Vernon, born and raised in northwestern Wisconsin, started Bon Iver in the winter of 2006-’07, when he moved back home after the breakup of his band DeYarmond Edison. Over the snowy months, he holed up in his father’s cabin and recorded what became 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago: 10 tracks that beautifully layered Vernon’s sometimes auto-tuned falsetto, acoustic guitar, and an occasional horn.

A cavernous and echoing album, For Emma weaves a feeling of loneliness and isolation throughout — an album more about a sentiment or feeling than the “Emma” in the title.

The project was a near-solo effort, with a few musicians contributing trumpets and trombones but most of it coming straight out of Vernon’s head and onto tape. Vernon self-released For Emma in 2007, but rave reviews online soon brought him to Jagjaguwar, an independent label in Bloomington, Indiana.

The album exploded on college radio stations, with the heartbreaking “Skinny Love” becoming synonymous with breakups, and “For Emma,” a wistful song with nostalgia baked right in, earning a place in indie canon. Bon Iver — a name Vernon pulled from the French phrase “bon hiver,” or “good winter,” a greeting from the ’90s TV show Northern Exposure — was thrust into the indie limelight.

A Kanye West encounter

Bon Iver toured after For Emma’s release, but almost immediately he began thinking about his next album. “The important thing for me is to have a sort of isolation mentality,” he said of his headspace in a 2008 interview with the Village Voice, “so that even though I'm not isolated physically I'm still alone in my head.” He told the A.V. Club: “I don't want to re-create this album. I just want to re-create the path and get into a place where I feel comfortable.”

With this in mind, a year after For Emma’s debut, Bon Iver released the four-track Blood Bank EP. The short album is pretty — quiet and contemplative, with Vernon’s signature falsetto. Most importantly, it struck a particularly high-profile listener: Kanye West, who tapped Vernon as a collaborator for his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, one of Kanye’s most ambitious albums to date.

Kanye not only sampled Bon Iver’s “Woods” for the track “Lost in the World” but brought Vernon in to work on the album:

He invited Vernon to Honolulu for the luxury-sleepover-camp-style recording sessions, where Vernon holed up in a small anteroom, laying down vocals for several tracks (and becoming unlikely weed buddies with the Miami rapper Rick Ross).

Still, when it came to recording his own follow-up LP, Vernon got caught in the classic sophomore slump. Whether it was pressure from the success of For Emma or the lack of special circumstances (winter, a cabin, a recent band breakup, a bout of mononucleosis) that made recording the first album alone so special, Bon Iver’s second album wasn’t working. “Somewhere along the line, I forgot how to write songs,” he told Rolling Stone in 2011. “I couldn’t do it anymore with a guitar. It wasn’t happening.”

Instead of slogging it out on his own, Vernon took some cues from his Kanye collaboration: He brought in backup — a team of talented studio musicians who came armed with saxophones, pedal steel guitars, flutes, trumpets, vibraphones, and skills to help him craft his album. “I built the record myself,” Vernon said, “but I allowed those people to come in and change the scene.”

Success on a national stage

The resulting album was the 10-track Bon Iver, Bon Iver, released in June 2011. With more musicians and collaborators than any of Vernon’s previous efforts, the record is strikingly more expansive, retaining Vernon’s voice and acoustic guitar as its core while introducing more horns, drums, strings, digital manipulation, and sounds reminiscent of his work with Kanye and collaboration with electronic artist James Blake.

“I always had a dream to be that sort of student of Neil Young, one of those people who can sit down and write a song and have it be this full statement and sound good,” Vernon said of his creation methods shortly before the record came out. “I just don’t think I’m as good at it as those people, frankly, and over the last few years, I’ve adapted.”

The collaborative technique worked: Pitchfork named Bon Iver, Bon Iver the best album of 2011. The 2012 Grammys took notice too, nominating it in four categories: Best New Alternative Album, Best New Alternative Artist, Song of the Year (for “Holocene,” above), and Record of the Year. Bon Iver went on to win both Best New Artist and Best New Alternative Album, beating out Radiohead, Foster the People, Nicki Minaj, Skrillex, and the Band Perry, to name a few.

Though Bon Iver was a household name in the indie scene, the Grammy win vaulted the group to national recognition. Many people didn’t know who the band was at the ceremony, mishearing its name for “Bonnie Bear, but watched Vernon’s acceptance speech nevertheless. On the next week’s episode of SNL, Justin Timberlake lampooned Bon Iver in a sketch with the Grammy nominees he beat out.

The band spent the summer headlining big music festivals like Sasquatch and Bonnaroo. To recreate the sweeping album and its instrumentation, Vernon brought a crew of six or more musicians onstage — a stark difference from his one-man For Emma performances.

22, A Million breaks out

Instead of riding the wave of his Grammy win straight into a new album, Vernon decided to take a break. “There are people who are straight-up into being famous,” Vernon told the New York Times this year, “and I don’t like that.”

Between his 2011 album and this year’s 22, A Million, the singer took four years to write, working on collaborations with Chance the Rapper and Francis and the Lights, producing an album for the English girl-rock group the Staves, and contributing to Kanye West’s 2013 album Yeezus.

The album he produced during that break is nearly as far as Vernon can get from 2008’s For Emma while still retaining one of the most recognizable voices in indie music — no matter how much he manipulates it. It’s Bon Iver’s most experimental album to date, mixing the choral sounds of Vernon’s previous efforts with something rawer and more frayed. Though this can create a slightly disjointed feeling from track to track, each individual song is a worthy listening experience on its own.

From just a glance, the track titles of 22, A Million — 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” for example — suggest something different, with more of an edge than 2008’s “Flume,” or 2011’s “Beth/Rest.” The 10 songs are a journey through sounds: “715 - CRΣΣKS” is a spare, hypnotizing track with Vernon’s pleading voice doubled, twisted, and notched down a few octaves and no sounds in the background to dull its impact.

“____45_____” shows Bon Iver’s fascination with saxophones on this record; the instrument shows up on several songs. This track opens with Mike Lewis and Vernon dueting on a saxophone vocoder, and as the song progresses, layers and layers of saxes pile on top of each other to create a velvety woodwind soundscape behind the vocals.

Perhaps most at odds are two songs on the record: “29 #Strafford APTS,” a sweeping, lyrical acoustic track reminiscent of the Bon Iver from years ago, and “21 M◊◊N WATER,” a song with few lyrics that devolves into a cacophony of sounds by its last minute — both representative of how varied this album’s tracks are.

“A big thing for me on the album was, how do we get something to sound accidental or new or fresh,” Vernon told the New York Times this year. You can hear that tension between “29 #Strafford APTS” and “21 M◊◊N WATER” — Vernon’s home base of acoustic ballad jutting up against the electronic, noisy sound he’s been edging closer to for years.

As an album, 22, A Million further cements Bon Iver’s status as an experimental group, bent on making new art every time they create. “I had this rare moment of: ‘This is a good thing’, where you create something,” Vernon says of his songwriting process. However, he hasn’t fooled himself into thinking one more album is a panacea: “Now that this album’s done, as much as I healed a lot of things by making it, I know that it’s an ongoing thing.”

The final track on the album, “00000 Million,” is a sobering closer. With none of the bold, digital sounds of the preceding tracks, the echoing piano ballad samples the line “the days have no numbers” from Irish folksinger Fionn Regan. The repeating phrase holds a mirror up to the central tension in Bon Iver’s opening mantra: an unlimited number of days always at odds with an impending end. Thankfully, this tension is what produced the group’s most progressive album to date.