The last album was supposed to be the weird one. After unexpectedly blowing the fuck up and selling a half-million copies of his isolationist spectral-folk breakup album For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon found himself in unfamiliar territory. Kanye West was flying him to Hawaii to record, Bushmills was paying him to play “guy who drinks whiskey” in subway ads, and people on primetime singing-competition shows were covering his songs. So Vernon pulled the classic difficult sophomore-album move, the kind of thing that seems custom-designed to push all those new fans away and change the narrative. He still played around with delicate and soul-bearing acoustic music, but he combined it with ’80s soft rock cheese and Auto-Tune soul and saxophonist Colin Stetson’s abstract free-jazz burp-drones.
The problem, of course, was that the resulting album, 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver was mind-shatteringly beautiful and everyone loved it. So: another half-million albums sold, a few more Kanye West collabs, a Best New Artist Grammy. The weird album had turned out to be every bit as big as the album that had come before (an album that was also, in its own way, a weird one). For a naturally shy and self-effacing person like Justin Vernon, that level of success has to fuck with your head. So now here he is finally, five years later, with an album even weirder than the weird one.
With the new 22, A Million, Vernon has given us: A tracklist so full of unpronounceable symbols that it’s positively Aphexian, a lyric sheet full of feints and allusions and impossible-to-read typefaces, a whole pile of numerology and symbolism, and a complete lack of recognizable song-structure. On nearly every track of the LP, Vernon runs his angelic natural falsetto, his single greatest artistic asset, through so many filters that it sounds positively post-human, and then he’s run most of the instrumentation on his songs through those same filters, turning what could’ve been still and rootsy acoustic music into an extraterrestrial blur. Chris Messina, Vernon’s engineer and the second person listed in the album credits, ended up creating his own voice-processing software program, the Messina, just so he could bend Vernon’s voice the way he wanted it bent.
22, A Million is a short album, just over a half-hour long. But even at that length, it sounds less like a collection of songs and more like a 34-minute head trip of whirrs and sighs and squiggles. Vernon lets his voice smear and echo, and he almost never uses it to express a direct, relatable human emotion. When, on “33 ‘GOD’,” Vernon offers that he’d be “happy as hell if you stayed for tea,” it’s a sudden, jarring trip into actual human conversation, though we never learn who might be staying for tea or why Vernon would be happy as hell. Most of the time, he’s offering up opacities like this: “I remember something / that leaving wasn’t easing all that heaving in my vines / and as certain as it is evening at is now is not the time.”
These are dense, insular songs, written without much care for speaking to people who do not happen to be Justin Vernon. Every once in a while, there will be a flash of something that feels like genuine and plainspoken communication. “Staying at the Ace Hotel / If the calm would allow / Then I would just be floating to you now,” Vernon sings, evoking the feeling of privileged, disorienting rootlessness that’s familiar to those of us who (light flex) have stayed in that particular overpriced boutique hotel chain. But moments like that are rare; mostly, Vernon is mutter-sighing things like “it might be over soon” and letting us draw our own conclusions on what he’s singing about. And he’s singing these vague, open-ended lyrics on songs that stay away from things like riffs and choruses and sometimes even melodies, at least as they’re conventionally understood. For all the exquisite studio craft that obviously went into 22, A Million, it feels loose and improvisatory, as if Vernon is making up these songs as they go along and then putting them into the digital blender when he’s done figuring them out.
For someone who excels at leading groups of musicians as they play in rooms, Vernon has emphatically not made a group-of-musicians-in-a-room album. Instead, he’s taken full advantage of technology and of all its distancing effects. On one song, Vernon reportedly layered the sounds of about 150 saxophones, which is just a lot of saxophones. He also makes heavy use of gospel samples, which puts 22, A Million on a list — alongside The Life Of Pablo, Coloring Book, and Blonde — of high-profile 2016 albums in love with the sound of gospel. But Vernon uses those sounds in ways that have nothing in common with what Kanye West, Chance The Rapper, and Frank Ocean are doing. He’s pulling old samples — a Mahalia Jackson song, tracks from Light In The Attic and Dust To Digital reissues — and using them for their grounding powers, keeping his own music from spiraling too high into the atmosphere. Those samples work like security blankets in the strange worlds he’s conjuring.
It’s funny, though. For all the things that Vernon does to push his music further out into the ether, there will always be something warm and welcoming about it. That’s probably because Vernon can’t not make something that’s just warpingly, woozily pretty. Beauty is in his music’s DNA. He can’t get away from it, and I don’t think he’s trying. A curious thing about 22, A Million is that it’s coming out into a world in which many, many more musicians are doing their best to sound like Vernon. His wounded, reaching-for-infinity falsetto has become one of the de facto indie rock singing styles; it’s effectively replaced the Isaac Brock scratch-wail and the Avey Tare/Panda Bear shroom-harmonies that used to run things. Vernon himself reportedly became interested in new forms of voice-processing software after working with Vernon soundalike Francis And The Lights on “Friends,” which is sort of like if Future was picking up tips from Desiigner. And in a world where so many people sound like Vernon, a new album from Vernon feels familiar, no matter how weird Vernon makes it. And so 22, A Million just sounds like a further-out, better-executed version of one of the sounds of the moment.
The difference between Bon Iver, Bon Iver and 22, A Million is something like the difference between OK Computer and Kid A: The adventurous, big-hearted, world-altering rock albums giving way to the insular studio experiments. But there’s a crucial difference. Kid A felt like a challenge, a provocation. As weird as Vernon might get, he doesn’t challenge. His music works like a balm. It soothes. And for all the work and experimentation and thought that Vernon clearly put into 22, A Million, he’s still essentially making sonic wallpaper. But lucky for him — and for us — it remains fucking staggeringly lovely sonic wallpaper. 22 A Million might fuck with a few kids’ heads, and it probably won’t go into bookstore-café stereo rotation as heavily as Bon Iver, Bon Iver did. But when you’re having a stressed-out day and need to wind down, his music continues to do the trick. And he’ll have to get a whole lot weirder still before that changes.
22, A Million is out 9/30 on Jagjaguwar. Stream it below.