And now back to our regularly scheduled presentation on Radio Friendly.
My history with Bon Iver is a romantic one. I was thirteen or fourteen on holiday down the coast around New Years where I met a girl. We’d see each other every morning at the beach. All week long she’d look at me and I’d look at her. We’d smile, then I’d go back to the unit. We didn’t speak until the night before my family and I were due to leave. I can’t remember much of the conversation. I do remember that she was a few years older than me. She obviously thought I was the same age because once she found out how young I was she sort of hesitated with any further conversation. I do remember she told me about Bon Iver. For Emma, Forever Ago had just come out and Bon Iver played down the coast where she had just gone to see him. She told me about Skinny Love and Blood Bank and how her ex-boyfriend learnt one of his songs on the guitar. After our conversation we both went our separate ways. I was only fourteen, her name was Xanthe and I listened to Bon Iver the next day.
I remember that story because it suits For Emma, Forever Ago perfectly. I regard that album as one of the best albums of the past twenty years. Maybe because I poor a little bit of myself into that album every time I listen to it. I also don’t listen to it too regularly because of that reason. It’s full of emotion and subtle instrumentation. It’s delicate and personal. It’s a fantastic debut record.
In 2016, through some cryptic promotion online, Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon) announced his third LP 22, A Million. I was caught up in the hype for this album. I was excited to hear anything new from Bon Iver. It had been five years since his second album, an album that took me a year or two to appreciate. I listened to 22, A Million upon release, and continued for a week or so and haven’t really touched it since. I wasn’t the biggest fan. But I was hoping that listening to the album again, I’d find a new appreciation for it like I did with his second album.
22, A Million opens with 22 (OVER SooN). Immediately, you can hear the change in Vernon’s production style. The song begins with sampled vocal lines that loop throughout the song in a crackled low-fi production. Auto-tuned vocals drip in and out until Vernon’s falsetto croon creeps in. The sampled vocal loops pan from left and right speaker, in my case left and right headphone. It’s odd and annoying and makes me disorientated, almost dizzy as I concentrate. Further instrumentation layers upon the sample. The opener shows elements of beauty, but the looping vocal samples are too annoying that I can’t block it out.
The next track, 10 deathbreast, begins with fuzzy, distorted drum beats that are overproduced. Vernon’s vocals transition in and out of auto-tune. It doesn’t add anything to the music. It’s not Yachty level of auto-tune, but it’s still too much for a guy whose voice is one of the key features of his music. The bass on the track is pushed to its limits, again sounding too distorted to the point that it’s fuzzy and messy. I can’t understand his lyrics, but I assume it’s some cryptic shit that hipster Bon Iver fans will automatically understand and start quoting on their depressing Tumblr wall. 10 deathbreast is one of the worst Bon Iver tracks, and it’s the second song pn 22, A Million.
715 Creeks plays with Yachty level auto-tune. The track is mostly vocals, but they seem to be layered, each with their own auto-tune. I don’t want to use the word disgusting, but this track is the second worst Bon Iver track I’ve heard. It’s shit.
Luckily, my favourite song off the album is next, 33 “GOD”. Gentle piano chords open against a glitchy electronic backing. Vernon’s vocals have little to no tuning, luckily. The track still uses electronics and samples but it’s in its instrumentation that the song shines. It’s not overproduced, though the bass still sounds a bit too fuzzy and distorted. The breakdown half way through the song is uplifting and satisfying as Vernon sings, “staying at the Ace Hotel,” the full band and samples play harmoniously.
29 #Stafford APTS isn’t that bad of a song, it’s a sweet acoustic ballad that sounds like it would fit perfectly on either of Bon Iver’s previous albums. It does suffer from poor production, sometimes the falsetto vocals become distorted the higher they go. It’s annoying to hear at this point.
21 Moon Water is the third worst Bon Iver song I’ve heard. It starts fine, in the context of this album any underproduced instrumentation is a blessing. Gentle, atmospheric sounds drift in and out. It’s very calming and pretty. Vernon’s auto-tuned vocals try to find subtle comfort amongst the beautifully textured instrumentation, but they stand out like an echidna at a nudist’s colony. The song feels like half backed ideas thrown into one as horn samples fly in out of nowhere. It begins to sound like free jazz, the rest of the instruments have stopped but the horns zip and zoo all over the place. It’s glitchy and fucking annoying. Free jazz would be better because at least the musicians have an idea on what they are doing.
Second last song, 45, has a gospel flair to it. I can even hear a banjo plucked towards the end of the song. The banjo has the best production out of any instrumentation on 22, A Million. It transitions from a crisp pluck to a gentle delay, if only for thirty seconds. Final track 00000 Million continues the preachy, gospel tone. Its instrumentation is simple, a piano, a soft acoustic guitar, and Vernon’ vocals. Yes, still auto-tuned. It’s passionate but doesn’t really go anywhere and ends the album on a low point. I guess you could say the same about Bon Iver’s previous two albums. Re: Stacks off For Emma is beautiful, but boring as an ending. But at least it suited the tone of the record.
22, A Million is a bullshit record. I can’t phrase that any better unfortunately. I wish I could. It’s the kind of album that wants to be taken seriously while also trying to be cool. The album tries too hard. It tries too hard to be stylish with its cryptic lyrics and album cover, and its electronic production and random samples. It’s not cryptic, it’s just a bunch of half baked ideas thrown into a bag, shaken around and thrown in the oven. It’s the Shake and Bake of albums. Tell that to your tumblr.
I still hold For Emma, Forever Ago close to my heart. It’s a personal and gentle album. It seems that Bon Iver’s records have progressively dropped in quality with each release. So, going by that trend, his fourth release will be up their with the Chainsmokers, Migos and Yachty’s Teenage Emotions.
Bon Iver’s 22, A Million was not worth the hype.
After the Hype is a weekly series where I listen to an album after the hype dies down and give my general thoughts, sometimes a little whinge. It’s ok to disagree.