If you were to guess at Kanye West’s “favorite living artist," who would be your first answer? His mentor, Jay Z? The painter behind perhaps his most enduring representation (and current Twitter AVI), George Condo? Or would you guess, correctly, Justin Vernon, the indie “folktronica” artist?
Since 2007, Vernon has performed as Bon Iver, a project he created after three months spent alone in a northern Wisconsin cabin, writing and recording Bon Iver’s debut LP For Emma, Forever Ago. He followed up that album with 2009’s Blood Bank, a four-track EP closed by the sweeping, Auto-Tuned acapella performance, “Woods”, which was sampled by West on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; the two would go on to become frequent collaborators, working on Watch the Throne’s “That’s My Bitch,” and Yeezus’ “I Am a God” and “I’m In It,” to name a few of their strongest. In 2011, Bon Iver released its second studio album Bon Iver, Bon Iver, a soft-rock opus universally revered by critics, despite occasional moments of cheesiness. After that, Vernon devoted time to a number of side projects, producing for or fronting lesser-known acts like Gayngs, Volcano Choir, and Shouting Matches. Over the years, he’s built a devoted following among critics, fans, and artists, among them Detroit fuse box Danny Brown, who has said that he aspires to be the “Bon Iver of rap.” Vernon is the rare artist who has successfully earned critical favor while refusing to settle artistically; like West, he’s a musician who can transform his sound and style yet still remain recognizable to us.
This year, Vernon returns to Bon Iver for its third LP, 22, A Million. It’s his most experimental and unconventional release to date, with deconstruction serving as its guiding theme. Vernon puts songs together only to subtly undermine them via intentional glitches and minor distortions in their fabric. Track titles—like, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄" or "21 M♢♢N WATER"—read like corrupted Word documents or Weird Twitter posts. In a September press conference for the album, Vernon gave an explanation for this formal conceit that West would undoubtedly relate to, “I think it’s that thing of wanting to bash things apart a little bit and break through some stuff,” he said. “And I needed it to sound a little radical to feel good about putting something out in the world.”
The manner in which tracks like “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and “29 #Strafford APTS” short out and skip suggests the same battle waged by West on 808s & Heartbreaks, where hard-hearted feelings could only be expressed in cold, inhuman tones. In the way that Kanye used Auto-Tune to mask, and even transcend, his limitations, Vernon uses, as he revealed in that September press conference, “the Messina,” a “new musical sound” he developed with engineer Chris Messina, bassist and saxophonist Michael Lewis, and pop artist Francis Starlite. With the help of the Messina—which creates a harmony between your voice and live instruments as you’re performing—he doubles, distorts, and pitches his vocals to introduce a strange, extraterrestrial presence to 22, A Million, not dissimilar to Frank Ocean’s vocals on Blonde opener, “Nikes.” But, though he sounds alien, Vernon isn’t seeking to alienate his listeners. The songs on 22, A Million toe the line between artistry and accessibility. Tracks like “715 – CRΣΣKS,” a close cousin to “Woods,” are balanced by “____45_____” and “00000 Million,” where his more human voice rings with crisp, poignant clarity; consciousness slips through amid the messy, machine-like groaning. Vocal processing and modulation allows Vernon, like West, to excavate a deeper layer of despair and find a state somewhere between animal and android. Likewise, his lyricism is by turns lucid and mystifying, balancing intimate, lovingly described moments (“Sharing smoke/in the stair up off the hot car lot”) with declarations that sound transcribed from the ether, or cribbed from Thom Yorke’s Notes app (“To walk aside your favor, I'm an Astuary King”).
Supplementing the LP’s mystic appeal is an album cover adorned with rainbows, yin-yangs, and representations of Vernon’s personal numerology. As he explained, rather obliquely, in an interview with the New York Times: “Being 22 is me. And then the last song [“00000 Million], which is this great elusive thing: like, what’s a million? The album deals a lot with duality in general and how that works into the math. I was big into Taoism in college, and the paradox of duality, and how it’s always one thing and the other—you can never have one thing without the other. So it’s 22 being me and a million being the Other.”
In public statements and interviews, West has always been plainspoken in his angst, continually verging or outright crossing the line between candid moments and cringe-worthy overshares. His creative voice has caught up as his career has progressed, particularly on The Life of Pablo, which, on songs like “30 Hours,” more or less doubles as a diary, syllables spilling over from bar to bar. Vernon, meanwhile, is purposefully cryptic, codifying his insecurities and heartbreak in rune-like song titles and lyric sheets seemingly cut-and-pasted together. However, that they’re kindred spirits shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with their work and careers. Both are eager to rejuvenate artforms continually weighed down by nostalgia or gross, commercially-concerned, creative deadlock. Vernon and West have distinguished themselves from their peers by their fluid, shape-shifting artistic output, taking us—shaking us, even—from now to the next wave, one album at a time. If only for the length of a proper LP, the two are able to give us glimpses into a potential cultural future, what music could and likely will sound like in their wake. On 22, A Million, Vernon takes us closer to his crystal ball than ever before.