Winter's Return

There’s nothing quite like an insanely memorable, outta-left- field debut record to give people the permanent impression that you’re a genius. And that everything you subsequently do is worth seeking out and discussing. Trouble is once you’re a genius where do you and your art go? Justin Vernon seems to be on everyone’s lips right now since the release of 22, A Million. Buy a slice a pizza, admittedly in the hipster environs of Brooklyn, and it’s playing in the background of a place that’s usually slavishly committed to a classic rock Pandora channel. Wives hear it at the gym (thumbs down). Drinking companions stream it on the subway (thumbs down). Young sons of friends call it “special.” Finally, the LP arrives, all $34.99 of it, and it’s on the turntable.

To recap, Vernon’s breakthrough, To Emma, Forever Ago, which was released in 2008 and impressed listeners in both the folk and indie rock music camps, as well as winning him famous fans like Kanye West on whose records he’s guested on ever since, is a spare, haunting collection of tunes written together over a winter when Vernon was nursing a broken heart and health issues in a cabin in rural Wisconsin. Sung in his quavering falsetto and backed by just a few other musicians, the songs were striking, ghostly and unlike anything else before or since. The success of For Emmahowever changed his music, as seen in the mandatory followup 2011’s Bon Iverwhich is as cluttered and full of horns, strings, other singers as the debut was stubbornly austere. Some diehards loved the expanded musical palette while others hungered for more gangly, unearthly odes. After a number of statements over the past five years about Bon Iver being on and off, Vernon’s now released his third album under his nom de winter, one that’s dividing his fans ever further.

At first glance and listen, it’s easy to dismiss this record as being too constructed rather that heartfelt, too consciously ART, too damned many vocal effects that sound like the ghostly leavings that end up in the comb filters used to create MP3’s! Fussiness abounds. The title of every song and the album itself are more numbers than words. Every track is built rather than simply recorded. The effect is dense clusters of sound. Symbols, rather than words, are everywhere on the packaging. And then there’s Vernon’s voice. Vocoders, Auto-Tune or in this case, the Messina, which is Vernon and engineer Chris Messina’s tweak of a Prismizer software plug-in (as in through a prism) will either attract you as a brave attempt at building new textures, new sounds or annoy and distract with its deliberately distorted, blurred effects that often sound deliberately sibilant. On the album’s second track, “10dEAThbREasT” the vocals have a large, static-like effect. On the next track “715 Creeks” it’s a straight, keyboard synth-like effect. On the next track, “33, God” a little Chipmunk squiggle creeps in the background vocal accents. The final track sounds has spots where the frail vocals even drop out for a second. While the idea behind all this vocal manipulation is easy to unravel, and electronics have a place in modern music, particularly if you can’t sing which Vernon can but only in falsetto, all this software derived bending and distorting definitely distracts from any impact the lyrics were meant to have. Electronics is electronics, love them or hate them, your choice. Vocal effects have been known to send audiophiles into unrecoverable spins or savage letters to the artist or editor. Side one of 22, Million will put undue pressure on fragile ears and sensibilities. Or maybe, despite the obvious work that Vernon put in, all this electronical handling just doesn’t work. It also doesn’t manage to cover up the weak musical meanderings of side one.

But in that age old, not-so-fast turn, side two comes along just in time to save the record. While the incessant fiddling with the vocals continues, the vision on the albums’ second side is more accessible and confident. A track like “8 (circle)” which is the most song-like of the 10 cuts here, is almost an anthem, benefitting from three saxophones including Colin Stetson.

Vernon closes on a high note as the music and lyrics on the last two tracks coalesce into sharp focus. In the very gospel-like “45,” which is just a duo between saxophonist Michael Lewis and Vernon (with the Messina at times judiciously used to process both) he sings “I’ve been caught in a fire/I stayed down (without knowing what the truth is)” a sentiment that carries into the very wonderful and even more gospel-like “OOOOO Million” where his doubled voice sings, “I hurry bout shame and I worry bout a worn path.”

To his credit, the booklet that comes with the LPs cites all the samples including bits of gospel group, The Supreme Jubilees, Irish singer Fionn Regan and most surprisingly, singer Mahalia Jackson. There’s also shout outs in the album jacket to longtime Vernon influence Richard Buckner and Sweet Honey on the Rock’s Bernice Johnson Reagon. On an album that opens with the line, “Where you look for confirmation” it’s clear that Vernon’s angsty searching for meaning remains. While his vocal experimentation and sound manipulation, clearly inspired by artists like Future and T-Pain, may put some off, his restless talent makes for intricate, visonary pop music.