Thursday 14 December 2017

Review: Bon Iver is hitting the big numbers now

Bon Iver — 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar): 4/5

Bon Iver
Bon Iver

Eamon Carr

So Justin Vernon is back with a new album, five years on from Bon Iver, the collection that followed the spectacular global success of the debut, For Emma, Forever Ago.

I wasn’t great at sums at school so to help me navigate 22, A Million, I referred to Kathleen Roquemore’s book It’s All In Your Numbers.

“Numerology is the science of numbers or vibrations,” she writes. “And was one of the sciences practiced by men of great wisdom in ages long past… They knew that this universal law applied to people as well as to things and that it could be used to determine a great deal about individuals.”

So far, so good. I think I might just have a handle on tracks such as album opener ‘22 ( S°°°°N)’, a mix of foghorn chic and glitchy electro minimalism, with its unsettling repetitive premise, “It might be over soon.”

Is Justin talking about a) life b) the recording process or c) this album we’re about to embark on? That’s just one of the innumerable puzzles and esoteric riddles set across these intriguing 10 tracks.

“No number is ever limited to what it is, neither is a person limited by the numbers in his or her chart…”, continues Ms Roquemore.

This may assist an acceptance by those who come to this album hoping for more of the soulful folksiness that characterised that monumental debut nine years ago. 

Artistically, Justin has moved on. The snow-bound cabin that featured so prominently in his early mythology was left behind a long time ago.

Justin has since been hanging with Kanye West and James Blake, neither of them a backwoods man. And here, he brings a lot of new influences and studio trickery to bear in sonically shaping his songs. The results are bold. Audacious, even. At the core are diamond-sharp melodies that glisten through shards of edgy electronica and grinding percussive effects.

You might feel the dreaded Autotune voice distorter has had its day, but hearing Justin croon, “Down on the creek, I remember something…” on ‘715 - CR∑∑KS’ and you’ll likely be thinking of a lonely ghost trying to finds his way home.

It’s a risky gambit. Turning your soft-rock melodies into a radical new, sometimes speaker-tearing, structural alignment. But, in this case, it works.

Not everyone will get the possible influence of Four Tet (Kieran Hebden’s groundbreaking folk-grime-electronica mash-up) or the outer fringes of experimental jazz, but for every elbow in the ribs, there’s a reassuring caress.

‘00000 Million’, with its clanking drum-loop and distorted sub-bass rumble, is a reprise of ‘10 dEAThbREasT’. Is this intentional or a tekkie glitch on my advance copy, I wonder?

Like, the album’s random lyrics, it’s a mystery. But one that’s as delightful and spiritually nourishing as this set.


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