Ever since 1965 when Bob Dylan plugged in his guitar to an amp and went electric folk musicians have sought various ways to explore and expand their sound and audience through the use of electronics. Bright Eyes did this huge acclaim on his Digital Ash in a Digital Urn LP and more recently Laura Marling has also ditched the acoustic guitar for one with a power supply. The extension of folk going electric has also run to rock, with Radiohead infamously changing their sound with the release of Kid A, and more recently to hip hop, with Kanye West’s Yeezus taking on industrial techno. Bon Iver’s 22, A Million owes a lot to all of these releases in its change of direction and artistic vision but perhaps most greatly it is indebted to the last release, as the vocal and production styles of Justin Vernon’s close friend Yeezy are a very strong influence on 22, A Million.
All of the above highlights clearly that those who purchase a copy of 22, A Million expecting the delicate folk of Bon Iver’s debut LP are going to be disappointed. There are elements of delicate folk and that stunning icy high pitched voice appearing on tracks like 00000 Million but even here a sample of Fionn Regan echoes across parts of the track adding something different to what has gone before. This referencing of contemporary folk artists occurs in other places as on track 4 where Bon Iver samples Paulo Nutini, it almost feels as if when reverting to the folk of old Bon Iver still wishes to cut n paste to express.
22, A Million treads a different path from what has gone before it and is littered with samples, vocoder and synth, which is coupled effectively with the folk that made Bon Iver an international success. At points the fracturing and confrontational style becomes difficult for the listener but in a very good way, a way, which in fact is again very comparable to Kanye West’s Yeezus. The first two tracks of 22, A Million conform almost whole heartedly to this stylistic and confrontational change, so much so, that in fact when some acoustic guitar and non-mechanised vocals appear on track 5 they act as a form of welcome relief.
Bon Iver is with 22, A Million challenging his listener to explore something else. To explore a more fractured sound in a more fractured world, he is confronting what folk can and should be in a post-modern world permeated by technology and the results are staggeringly effective. Track 3 is a perfect example of this: It’s a folk love song fed through a brutal vocal effects machine, to the point whereby it sounds like a robot voice from a Kanye West nightmare, yet with the story telling lyricism and heart ache roots the track contains many folk elements.
Bon Iver has always painted a dark and tortured picture of the world on his LPs often portraying emotional and personal turmoil and 22, A Million does feel similar in this vein. Yet even when plumbing the depths of darkness, as he does here, Justin Vernon finds beauty and despite being as dark as the night 22, A Million is as beautiful as the moment you spot the light of the first visible star.
Like those that went before him Justin Vernon has successfully changed his style and with 22, A Million is a very worthy contender for album of the year.