When music is 4G, streamable, and transient, songs requiring sincere attention are “maudlin.” One of the most common criticisms of Justin Vernon is that his artisanal approach to song craft leaves irony out of the recipe. Postmodern cynicism makes existential crooning an easy target for ridicule. Especially when you consider the audience: middle class whites cosying up to a hearty fire in a hushed cabin. Drinking Starbucks coffee and PBR. Wearing plaid flannel. Struggling humbly against the elements. Bon Iver fit this aesthetic well when it was just Vernon in his mythical cabin, making folk alchemy out of snow and sickness, all the way through singing accompanied by a lonely xylophone for a small audience in a candlelit Paris apartment.
It was even before Vernon began singing a duet with Kanye West in a cherrypicker at Glastonbury, that the caricature of a Wisconcinite, indie heart-melter seemed ill-fitting. Even in 2007, with For Emma, Forever Ago, and Blood Bank, he was planting adventurous musical ideas in his songs. “Wolves” contained a molten lick of auto-tune, something that was strictly the territory of T Pain-types. “Woods” expanded on this, turning Vernon’s voice into a symphony of layered chords. This trick was later picked up by Kanye West, who credits Justin as his “favourite living artist.”
After a whirlwind decade of incongruous political bickering and economic uncertainty, landmark social achievements and deplorable tragedies, Justin Vernon has achieved a surprise victory with 22, A Million. It is simultaneously expansive and inward focused, over-zealously digital, but restrictive compared to Bon Iver, which sounded like the floral spring to compliment For Emma’s winter. It cements the artist as one who truly forges his own path, away from conventional expression and conventional structure.
Chock full of graphic glyphs and number codes, Bon Iver’s third album occupies similarly fragmented territory as The Life of Pablo; also Frank Ocean’s Blond, with a little Oneohtrix Point Never, Bob Dylan and Bruce Hornsby. It resonates deeply with Volcano Choir, a project Vernon helmed with the post rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees that has released two albums of gossamer acoustic ambience (and a few stadium stompers). At its core, the album is grandiose, 80s power ballads coated in Vernon’s signature falsetto whimper, and a significant amount of 21st Century experimental electronics. Software like Max/MSP, Messina, and the TE OP-1 all derive from modern technologies that play a considerable role in the creation of some of the most inventive albums of this decade. In this sense, there is not much deviation from Vernon’s core songwriting sensibilities. Instances of squawking woodwinds, ambient pads, and cryptic lyrics are all deliberate distractions from the simple, delicate core at the heart of all these songs.
He is a child of David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan and Neko Case, and a contemporary of St. Vincent and James Blake. Although 22 recedes further into the darkness of the artistic struggle, it is a natural peak in the career of Justin Vernon – a career which will most likely follow new, equally strange routes as his legacy joins some of the most sonically versatile and expressive songwriters of modern time.
Illustration: Vivian Uhlir