This review was originally written for the Strathclyde Telegraph. Check out the full thing here.
From the warm rustles of wind through his log cabin on For Emma Forever Ago, to the crackling flecks of distortion that mark 22, A Million, Justin Vernon has always been an artist to find beauty in shared loneliness. His early work uses aching folk songwriting and an eerie atmosphere to articulate the heavy weight of depression. It was a mood that felt uncomfortably personal, bringing the listener into his rawest moments so they could bear some of the same pain . On his self-titled second release, the same feeling was there, but turned up to the extreme, with blaring horns, disintegrating guitars and a whirlpool of voices battling through the same pain.
It was gorgeous, as much of his music is, but with a newfound danger that made cuts like Perth and Michicant tense and exciting alongside the familiar tenderness. 22, A Million takes this danger one step further, with a chaotic, fractured approach to songwriting. Many of the songs here feel more synthetic than expected for an artist revered for his organic warmth. That warmth is undoubtedly here, but it’s a blistering heat that threatens to set fire to the speakers that play these songs.
Vernon’s fractured approach to the album format has been a compelling theme in music this year. Kanye’s nihilist approach to the Life of Pablo, Frank Ocean’s bare, beautiful Blonde and James Blake’s sprawling The Colour in Anything find humanity in their destructive tendencies. All of these musicians have collaborated in numerous combinations, and there’s a feeling of a secret pact between them on all of their new records. Undoubtedly, the overblown swell of Yeezus, the detailed tinkering of Blake and the quiet poetry of Ocean all come together on 22, A Million, but it’s the feeling of shared loneliness that radiates the most.
22 (OVER S∞∞N) is a gorgeous, unfurling ballad that sets up the fractured approach to sound design perfectly. The crumbling organ notes and sliced vocal samples flick between sweet and sour as Vernon’s voice begins to layer and harmonise towards a heavenly climax. 10 d E A T h b R E -a s T’s cacophonous stomp gives way to a flurry of saxophone’s before abruptly ending. In stark contrast, the alien vocoder coos on 715 – CRΣΣKS prove that space and silence can be just as emotionally stirring as the blasts of noise that fill the mix during the song’s wilder moments.
Highlight 33 GOD takes peaceful piano balladry and blends it with tickling electronics and stark drum blasts. A Paolo Nutini sample bursts through and lifts every hair on your skin as the song careens forward in a haze of beautiful noise. Some of the album’s later cuts, such as 8 (circle) humanises Vernon’s approach with a more direct songwriting. The shared intimacy is still there, but with a tangible human touch.
At 34 minutes, this album is a deep, dense look at our most personal moments. It’s undoubtedly moving, but the brevity given can make a need for resolution the main emotion of a full listening. This may well be the intention. 22, A Million, at times can be a record as alien as it is beautiful.