Back in the fall of 2012, Justin Vernon told Minnesota Public Radio that Bon Iver was perhaps nearing its end. Vernon had been on tour for a year at that point with Bon Iver—the indie-folk project he’d launched in 2007 with the debut album For Emma, Forever Ago—and needed some space from the national attention it and he had garnered. If time out of the media spotlight was what the 35-year-old Vernon needed, he seemed to find it.
Between that tour—in support of Grammy-winning album Bon Iver, Bon Iver—and the late September release of his five-years-in-the-making third album, 22, A Million, Vernon recorded other side projects (Volcano Choir), created a summer music festival called Eaux Claires in his home state of Wisconsin, and collaborated with other musicians, including hip-hop artist Kanye West.
If Vernon really is as media-shy as he purports to be, he never should have hooked up with West. On the other hand, Vernon’s eclectic musical ties and interests (he’s often mentioned his love for the Indigo Girls and Bruce Hornsby) likely benefited from the musical collusion. To the melancholy, folky fragility of For Emma and deeper, layered sound of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Vernon adds the tech-heavy 22, A Million. Where his guitar and falsetto voice conveyed pain, longing, and other emotions on previous recordings, Vernon allows other instruments (saxophone, percussion) and a form of digital voice-instrument manipulation technology called “The Messina” to glide over his voice, obscuring the lyrics. The tracklist—featuring titles like “8 (circle)” —seems designed to obfuscate. But beautifully obfuscate. The album begins with the soulful, sax-laden “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and ends with the warm, hymn-like “00000 Million.”
Just days before releasing 22, A Million (a title which Vernon cryptically defines as an insular performer—“22,” a number with which he identifies—against the vast world of millions), Bon Iver performed secret shows and on Instagram announced giveaways of commemorative newspapers in cities from Eau Claire, Wisconsin to Amsterdam. Designed to build momentum for the new release, it also added to the studied mystery of Bon Iver.