After a few years spent working on things other than Bon Iver, time spent sorting out heavy personal issues, and a radical rethink of the style that launched Justin Vernon's project to the upper reaches of indie folk popularity, the always searching musician returned in 2016 with an album that redefined Bon Iver in dramatic fashion. 22, A Million is a complicated and intricate record that features chopped-up lyrics, altered vocals, sped-up samples, alternately shimmering and clipped keyboards, treated saxophones, and the occasional gently strummed guitar. Through most of the challenging album, Vernon and his collaborators create miniature structures of sound and space, letting his vocals drift and cascade through sparse and fractured constructs like a lost soul wandering through empty futuristic streets. It's a long way from intimate folk songs recorded in a remote Wisconsin cabin. In the music, one can hear the influence of Vernon's occasional collaborator Kanye West, especially on the mutated R&B tracks like "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄" and "33 'God'," where his vocals take on a rap-like cadence, but also in the sense of grandeur and bombast intermittently found there and elsewhere. In direct contrast are the songs that sound very inward and emotionally bleak and twisted, possibly reflecting some of Vernon's struggles along the way. The desperate "715 - CR∑∑KS," which features nothing but a choir of Auto-Tuned Vernons singing aching lyrics that sound like they're being ripped from the deepest, darkest corner of his tortured soul, is maybe the darkest track. In yet more contrast, a few songs on the album retain much of the hushed acoustic feel of his earlier albums, but with weird electronics and tricks around the edges. The beautiful "29 #Strafford APTS" is a folk song at its core, but he adds altered vocals, queasily pitched saxophones, and distorted electronic tones to provide some drama to the song. He does similar things to the album-ending piano ballad "00000 Million" and the tense, almost ambient "21 M◊◊N WATER," turning them from typically sad Bon Iver songs into something weird and oddly more affecting. The only track on the album that falls short of the standard set elsewhere is "8 (circle)," which makes the mistake of being a little too earnestly straightforward and too much like a Bruce Hornsby song. This was probably the one that needed the most manipulation, and it's the one that gets the least. One little misstep can't keep 22, A Million from being a return to form, even as it turns the established form on its head and gives it a spin. It's clear that the upheavals in Vernon's life and music are a matched set; he turns his pain into art as he does a deep dive into exploration of technique and sound. It's an impressive feat of reinvention that manages to keep Vernon's emotional core fully intact no matter how far the music strays from established Bon Iver territory.
AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra