22, A Million
Bon Iver’s magnetic core was always Justin Vernon’s voice, an instrument both singular and versatile. Like the fire flickering inside the hearth of some rustic cabin, Vernon’s keening falsetto was the centerpiece of the largely acoustic For Emma, Forever Ago. He stretched his voice on the foundational EP Blood Bank, his husky baritone anchoring the title track, while his curiosity led him to process it to celestial effect on “Woods.” Even on the ornate Bon Iver, where horns cascaded and dual drum kits sometimes evoked black metal, it was Vernon’s voice that gave emotional ballast to oft-inscrutable lyrics. His generational finesse and aplomb as a singer became most obvious on 22, A Million, a visionary statement from— and extraordinary leap for—someone who had recently been considered a mere guy with a guitar. Released in 2016, the album features a sprawling lineup, with a few dozen people contributing bits and pieces. But Vernon and a team of audacious producers—BJ Burton, Chris Messina, and Ryan Olson—move that big band inside a machine, cutting and warping the sounds into blocks they rebuild into surrealistic pillows for Vernon’s emotive acrobatics. He sings, for instance, over tessellated samples of his own voice at the start of “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” his seraphic falsetto setting up snapshots of faint foreboding. Doubled and tripled, shifted and corkscrewed, his voice is the sole instrument of the stay-or-leave plea “715 - CR∑∑KS,” with images of rivulets and moons and reeds cast like spells against loneliness. And Vernon’s baritone stands at the pulpit of desire during “8 (circle),” saxophones and snares swirling with a choir of keening glossolalia, while his fluttering notes play the role of conductor for the propulsive rhythm during “666 ʇ.” Vernon, of course, invented neither the falsetto nor vocal processing, traditions respectively developed for centuries and decades. But perhaps no other musician has mobilized them in such imaginative ways on one album of sheer triumph as he does on 22, A Million.