BON IVER: 22, A MILLION (2016)
1) 22 (OVER S∞∞N) 2:48; 2) 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄; 3) 715 - CRΣΣKS; 4) 33 “GOD” 3:33; 5) #Strafford APTS; 6) 666 ʇ; 7) M♢♢N WATER; 8) 8 (circle); 9) ____45_____; 10) 00000 Million.
Okay, I think I get it now. It's some of that damn Illuminati business, man. Justin Vernon is their secret weapon — by unleashing him upon the world and using both mainstream and alternative rock critics as their helpless puppets, they are planning to disorient us, confuse us, corrupt and subjugate our aesthetic values and ultimately plunge the world into so much confusion that Kanye West might be able to become president and give the launch codes to Somali pirates, while we're all busy discussing Bon Iver's latest message to humanity. And these song titles? Aren't they already imprinted in your mind like proper subliminal messages, to be activated by the New Order at just the right moment?
So even if I'm assuming the highly ungrateful role of Cassandra here, I will still go out and say it, and maybe one or two of you nuclear survivors will have the opportunity to thank me ten or so years from now: to a certain extent, the sound and image of 22, A Million was predictable, because when somebody's search for new and unprecedented ways of self-expression overrides one's talent so mercilessly, the results look something like this. Of course, a radical turn into the direction of sampling, Auto-tuning, and crossbreeding neo-folk with electronica was inevitable for this guy, although the scope of it couldn't have been properly guessed. And, of course, the process of such cross-breeding was far more important to him than actually caring that the record made some sort of sense. And why bother crafting a record that would make some sort of sense, anyway, if fans and critics alike will be all too happy to invent it for you?
Here, have some frickin' quotes. "22, A Million is comparatively strange and exploratory, but its worries are more existential... nearly all of its songs contain a question of some sort, as if Vernon’s own reckoning with the inevitability of decay has led him to interrogate every last thing he’s seen or known" (Pitchfork). "The wonder of 22, A Million is how beautifully he melds the disparate forms—inside and outside, acoustic and digital, past and future, ground level and interstellar" (Spin). "With his long-awaited third album, Vernon completely breaks from his guitar-hugging persona, leaving it in the woods like a Coen brothers corpse as he flexes a mastery of processed vocals, samples, loops, beats, synths and noise, along with more familiar trappings" (RollingStone)... you get the drift already, don't you?
So it's either Illuminati or the man found some serious Al Capone stash buried right under his log cabin, with which he was able to buy up all the significant media sources — because, while I did honestly try to entertain, nurture, and re-kindle the possibility of this being, like, you know, a good album after all, even over the course of several listens... well, gut instincts don't lie: just as in the case of his prior two albums, each new listen only brought an additional wave of disgust, so at least in that respect he's demonstrating a delightful stability. And yes, maybe it is just me and I am still not getting something about all this, but so far, not a single one of these reviews has taken even a tiny step towards convincingly clarifying what that «something» could be.
Roughly speaking, 22, A Million is an alien-dimensional take on neo-folk, consisting of three steps: (a) write some fairly bland, hookless, nowhere-near-innovative melodies on the intersection of rootsy Americana and New Age; (b) fill 'em up with lyrics that can barely pass the Turing test, but might serve as fodder for lengthy, bloody battles of interpretation; (c) twist, distort, cut up, paste the material with as many technological devices and in as many different ways as your engineer might suggest. As Pitchfork says, "nearly all of its songs contain a question of some sort", and they do, oh yes they do. For instance: "Why is the accappella melody of ʽ715ʼ completely hidden under a wall of Autotune?" (Oh, excuse me, that's not Autotune proper, it's some brand-ass-new device called ʽthe Messinaʼ after the name of Vernon's engineer. I'm sure this technical detail makes a lot of artistic difference). Lo and behold, now your life has meaning, because you can spend the rest of it answering that question.
But to return to that old crudeness and bluntness: The melodies on 22, A Million lack memorability or originality (I don't think there's really a single chord sequence on here that could not have been used up by the likes of a James Taylor sometime in the past — and, as much as I remain skeptical of the overall artistic merit of Sufjan Stevens, that guy does everything that Bon Iver is capable of and much, much more). The lyrics make no sense whatsoever, except for a few individual lines, and the individual lines are usually nauseatingly pretentious ("Must've been forces that took me on them wild courses / Who knows how many poses that I've been in" — unless he's been Napoleon in one of his past lives, I'm not prepared to buy this), and it is self-understood that humor and self-irony will be prosecuted if they ever find themselves on Justin Vernon's property. And the «special effects», beginning with the triumphant Unicode of the song titles and ending with all the psychedelic / futuristic / faux-avantgarde sampling and encoding, are little more than annoying. Most of the time, it simply sounds like a kid having fun with his laptop. The kid will find it delightful to turn his voice into a chipmunk's every now and then, but there's simply no reason whatsoever for a grown-up person to do so on the very first line of the very first song and then pretend that it has some artistic significance — or, worse still, prod us into discovering, intellectually-symbolically or emotionally-supernaturally, that significance.
If the first album was simply boring, and the second album was intolerable because it intentionally presented obsolete crappy values as the new Art, then the third one is simply an anti-artistic scam — a new low in an already fantastically atrocious career. So why is it that, out of all the gazillions of «experimental» albums released every year, people were ready to fall specifically for this one? Is it the Kanye West endorsement? Is it some sort of irresistible tug that you get when you take two of the most fashionable things of the past decade — the folksy bearded loner and the digital studio processing technology — and mash them together with full force? Is it that the words he chooses for his songs hit some sort of generational nerve, and that his arrangement of these words actually carries a manipulative effect? Or is it simply that so many of us have such a mad craving for a soft, whiny, vulnerable falsetto to take as a partner in weeping over the disheveled and confused state of the world? So much so, that even when that falsetto is distorted with five billion layers of Autotune, we take this as a symbolic representation of all the unbearable burdens and unsolvable problems that pin the Vulnerable Little Man down to the ground? Oh look at me, I'm almost beginning to rant like a Pitchfork reviewer already.
Whatever — I say shake off the haze, cut the crap, and call this one of the most stupid, misguided, and phoney albums of the year 2016. If you want some actual folksy sadness that sounds real, for a change, go listen to True Sadness by the Avett Brothers, who lay no claims whatsoever to Big Fat Innovation, do not put dumb effects on their voices, hardly ever use one special symbol from the user-defined area in their song titles, yet somehow seem to pack more emotion and plain old common sense in a single song than Justin Vernon manages to smear over half an hour of his «muzak of the future». Sure, there's nothing adventurous whatsoever about True Sadness, but when it comes to choosing between (a) sitting in front of the fireplace and sipping hot tea on a cold evening, or (b) wrapping your wife's panties around your head and jogging through the Mojave desert in a pokemon suit, I happen to be the kind of guy who chooses (a). Although, add choice (c) — sit through 22, A Million just one more time in hopes of finally penetrating its transcendental nature — and choice (b) begins to look a bit more promising. I suppose it's only natural that the thumbs down verdict here not be subject to any further appeal.