Bon Iver Loses, and Finds, His Voice on 22, a Million

The influential indie singer’s experimental third album is at its best when it lets humanity shine through the noise.

Bon Iver's press photos don't show his entire face
Cameron Wittig & Crystal Quinn

For everything the human voice can do, lately artists across popular music have been looking for ways to make it do more. Auto-Tune was just the start: Whether it’s a playfully pitch-shifted Rihanna, Justin Bieber’s voice chopped and arranged into a wordless singalong, James Blake treating his own croon like sculpting clay, or Frank Ocean releasing two versions of the same song differentiated by the type of distortion on his voice, sounding like a better singer isn’t the point—sounding like a different creature is.

Perhaps the mechanization of vocals is a sign of progress in recording technology, or of artistic concerns about an ever-less-organic age. But maybe the motive is simpler: It’s the latest way to try and get an edge. The three-to-four-minute pop song is well-worn by now; messing with vocals is a way to meet Ezra Pound’s enduring directive to “make it new.”

Among the vanguard of this trend has been Bon Iver, who’s long sought to make a very old form—singer/songwriter folk music—seem new largely through voice. The 2007 indie smash For Emma, Forever Ago introduced Justin Vernon’s whimpery falsetto, which struck the ear as unfamiliar while communicating a feeling of devastation, as Vernon used lyrics selected less for meaning than for alluring consonance. He then shocked the indie world with the 2009 track “Woods,” sung entirely in what sounded like Auto-Tune, leading to an unlikely, prolific, and influential creative partnership with Kanye West. Studio effects majestically swathed Vernon and his band for 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, such a crossover hit that it won the Grammy for album of the year.

Bon Iver’s new album, 22, A Million, buzzes with strange vocals. Sped-up and syrupy samples dart around as Vernon’s voice gets pitch-shifted, multi-tracked, or distorted as if beamed from a malfunctioning satellite. The underlying music strains for surprise at every turn, using incongruous rhythms, fleets of wheezing saxophone, and song structures as nonlinear as a stream of water making its way across rough pavement. Many tracks feature the Messina, an instrument that Vernon and a studio engineer invented, and one song was recorded onto a crumpled-up cassette tape so as to cause imperfections. All of this is an attempt to make it new; all of this creates intrigue but also distance between the singer and the listener that sometimes is too great to be overcome.

Vernon is also straining against the confines of language, embarking on a numerology/typology/meta-textual kick with song titles like  “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and “"____45_____"  and lyrics like “The math ahead / The math behind it / It's moon water.” He explained the album title to The New York Times by saying, “it’s 22 being me and a million being the Other.” After a few weeks of listening I still don’t really get what most of this means, but his consistently preposterous lyrics have never been the entry point into his music anyways. The most discernible narrative from the “22” at the start of the album to the “million” at the end of it is one of decluttering: The early songs are more jagged and ostentatiously experimental, and the later ones are smoother and sneakier in their innovations.

The early songs are also, generally, the worse ones, where the melodies are either forgettable or too obscured to fully enjoy. The collage-like opener  “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is nearly magnificent, owing less to all the twitchy loops than the warm, inviting vocal line that never quite gets a chance to fully develop. There’s no denying the bravery of the subsequent "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” built upon a rhythm that sounds like a washing machine crashing down a flight of stairs, nor of "715 - CRΣΣKS," which is just highly distorted acapella. But there’s also no denying their ugliness, unredeemed by the tunes themselves. "715 - CRΣΣKS" ends in an intense, almost frightening passage where Vernon repeatedly begs someone to “turn around”—it’s remarkable as an artistic statement, but also almost unlistenable.

As Vernon reverts to the pastoral, though, you’re reminded of his power. “33 ‘God’” successfully balances piano prettiness and bulbous noise on its voyage to rock-and-roll catharsis. "29 #Strafford APTS" and "666 ʇ" confirm Vernon’s chops as an affecting songwriter while synthetic contraptions whir in the background and his voice seems to disintegrate and reconstitute. The charmingly odd “____45_____” conjures a troupe of woodwinds working not quite in sync, noodling in the spaces between Vernon’s simple lyric: “I’ve been caught in fire.” But the clear highlight in the mix is “8 (Circle),” a steadily building reverie of soft rhythmic thuds and waves of sax as Vernon channels “Purple Rain” in a sermon-like performance.

By the time of the closer “00000 Million,” Vernon seems like he might be reconsidering his previous obtuseness. Over simple piano chords, he sings a melody that sounds inspired by American folk standards—hints of “Kumbaya,” maybe—while delivering some of the most legible lyrics of his career, reflections on straying from the obvious path in life. “A word about Gnosis: it ain't gonna buy the groceries,” he says, a truly great line, as well as “If it's harmed, it's harmed me, it'll harm, I let it in”—a refrain about acceptance. There’s a far-off sample of another singer, and Vernon’s vocals are layered, conjuring the feeling of a room full of people singing together. His voice sounds new, but gratifyingly, his humanity comes through clear.