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Bon Iver obscures his vulnerability with vocal effects on 22, A Million

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On his latest album, Justin Vernon retools his sound with digital manipulation

Bon Iver’s debut album, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, slow-burned into relevance, despite the fact that its creator, Justin Vernon, might have preferred it remain in obscurity. It sold just 4,000 copies in its first week, but eventually received a gold certification (500,000 units sold) from the RIAA. The album’s success solidified Vernon as a new mastermind in the recently commercially viable indie world, and it became a cultural landmark for a certain kind of unapologetically emotional solo artist. For Emma came packaged with its own mythology, too: Vernon recorded the album in his father’s cabin in a remote area of Wisconsin, which made him seem like more of a mysterious loner than his tender songs about heartbreak did.

But it’s hard to remain a mysterious loner once your debut album sells half a million copies, and Vernon seemed eager to shed that inscrutable persona anyway. In the years after For Emma’s release, Vernon went from reclusive romantic to frequent collaborator with one of music’s least bashful people: Kanye West. Vernon lent vocals to several tracks on West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus, and is credited as a writer on "That’s My Bitch," from Kanye and Jay Z’s Watch the Throne. (Kanye has since called Vernon his "favorite living artist"). So it makes sense that Bon Iver’s newest release, 22, A Million (the follow-up to a largely inconsequential sophomore album) borrows from his earliest sound as much as it borrows from West’s more distorted persuasions. 22, A Million takes the exposed wounds that made For Emma such an effective piece of work, but manipulates those wounds into something not quite flesh and blood.

Reworking old exposed wounds

Vernon’s voice has always been integral to his sound: fragile and pleading, tired but unable to rest. It’s still a central force on 22, A Million, but this time around, Vernon’s weary vocals are heavily obscured by production effects. Take "715 CRΣΣKS," one of the album’s best songs: Vernon’s trademark falsetto comes through in a thick vocoder haze, deep and digital. He sings about being abandoned, either by love or God or something else intangible: "And love at second glance, it is not something that we need / Honey, understand that I have been left here in the reeds / And all I'm trying to do is get my feet up from the creeks." When he gets to "understand," his pitch shifts to something unstable and broken — you can’t actually hear his voice crack or his breath skip, but you can tell it’s happening.

To create the effects on 22, A Million, Vernon used new software called Messina (created by the engineer Chris Messina) that allows musicians to harmonize vocals and instruments in real time, and Prismizer, a program (whose invention is largely credited to Francis Starlite of Francis and the Lights) that builds a glossy choral sound around single vocals. Frank Ocean used the same tactic on Blonde; Chance the Rapper applied it to Coloring Book. On all three albums these effects feel not just like a stab at futurism, but an attempt to obscure vulnerability. With a more synthetic sound, Vernon and his peers are freed from the responsibility of giving a voice to everyone else’s humanity.

For Emma, Forever Ago was released during an uncertain time in US history. George W. Bush had recently called for a surge of troops in Iraq and financial institutions threatened to crumble as the housing bubble burst like stale Bazooka Joe. Indie stalwarts like Of Montreal and Animal Collective were releasing goofy pop albums (Hissing Fauna and Strawberry Jam, respectively) that drowned any potential sorrow in nebulous shrieks, manic percussion, and gluttonous synth lines. By contrast, For Emma, Forever Ago felt deflated, like it was giving listeners permission to wallow. Almost a decade later, 22, A Million feels more interested in protection, because wallowing forever might not be a practical option. On For Emma, Vernon’s voice was something for listeners to hide in; on 22, A Million, it’s something for Vernon himself to hide in.

Wallowing forever might not be a practical option

This doesn’t mean that 22, A Million is impenetrable or cold. Part of Vernon’s appeal as an artist has always been his ability to translate complex ideas and sonic structures into a general feeling — one that anyone who’s listened to his past work will recognize. Even lines like "Within our eyes there lies a scission" (on "22 (OVER S∞∞N)") — an academic reach in the hands of another musician — will feel relatable to anyone who has ever stood by and watched a relationship divide slowly and inexplicably widen.

The album’s closing track, "00000 Million," sounds the most like a folk ballad, a small revert back to Vernon’s past self. He sings, "I worry about shame, and I worry about a worn path / And I wander off, just to come back home." Even as Vernon tries to create distance from his past, it’s always going to be there. And it’s the combined weight of that past and the uncertainty of the future that ultimately makes 22, A Million feel uncontainable even as it tries to shield itself from the world.

22, A Million is out tomorrow on Jagjaguwar.