One of the weirdest things about reaching the end of your early 20’s is realizing that the search for “authenticity” is a goal reserved for your finicky teenage years. For many of us who came of age during the late 00’s and early 2010’s, the image of authenticity that was forced down the throats of hip middle class white kids carried somewhat of a proto-lumbersexual aesthetic. The music that came along with this image was made by groups like Iron and Wine, Fleet Foxes, and Bon Iver. While all three occupied a similar corner of hipster chamber-folk, Justin Vernon’s leanings were always slightly different. Though his music easily fell under the folk banner, it carried a distinctly modern, with samples and digital manipulations being juxtaposed against acoustic instruments. These aspects placed Bon Iver in direct opposition to the indie-folk obsession with acoustic authenticity.
Nearly every piece of journalism regarding Vernon will bring up the backstory behind Bon Iver’s 2007 debut. Writers often rely on his self-isolation in rural Wisconsin (categorizing Eau Claire as “rural” is a bit of an exaggeration by the way) to help sell the “authenticity” of his work before anyone actually hears the music itself. In interviews, it was obvious Vernon was growing tired of having to constantly retell this story. Now it seems he shutting the door and that chapter of his artistic career completely.
The first few seconds of his latest record “22, A Million” make it obvious that Vernon is attempting to distort any notion of strictly being an artist attempting to revive the music of a time since passed. The OP-1 manipulated vocal loops that open the album serve as a warning to listeners who expected more acoustic lullabies, almost holding a sign that reads “THIS IS AN ELECTRONIC RECORD”. This message is further enforced by tracks like “CREEKS” and “___45___” where glitches destroy any semblance of natural or real sound. These act as a middle finger to his flannel+raw-denim adorned fanbase. Don’t get me wrong, the acoustic tendencies are still here. Tracks like “29# Stafford Apartments” and “33/GOD” are still carry veins of folk, but they have digitally reshaped and manipulated until they are formed into something unrecognizable. Applying a sort of abstracted approach to music steeped in traditionalism.
Prior to last month the only exposure to Bon Iver I found enjoyable had been via his collaborations with Kanye West and James Blake. On these recordings, his beardo-folkiness was stripped away, allowing the glitchy, geometric, auto-tune laden arrangements to shine through. Luckily, “22, A Million”, shares more with these collaborations than his previous two albums. Instead of placing digital textures in a folk context, Vernon now does the opposite, forcing nearly every instrument at his disposal through digital processing . The result is an album where familiar sounds are warped into strange cubist structures. For some people, this new album may seem a self-indulgent and half hazard mess, for me it is perhaps a blue-print, a map showing the way forward for the struggling genre of indie folk.