Last weekend marked Bon Iver’s return from hibernation.
Five years after its last album, the Grammy-winning rock and folk group unveiled a new album’s worth of material during its appearance at its own Eaux Claires Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Later that night came the announcement of the group’s third album, 22, A Million (cover at right), due at the end of September, as well as the release of two new tracks.
To call the new songs a departure from previous Bon Iver’s earliest material is underselling it, beginning with the tracks’ titles: “22 (Over S∞∞N)” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄.” Those aren’t outliers in the 22, A Million tracklist, whose titles resemble the naming conventions of Aphex Twin, Grimes or vaporwave artists.
The tracks leave the band’s folksy beginnings in the dirt. “22 (Over S∞∞N)” coasts on a bed of glitchy synthesizers and Justin Vernon’s processed vocals that caution life “might be over soon.” The other song filters Vernon’s vocals even more over a clicking chatter of a beat.
This is a far cry from the Bon Iver that made the likes of “Skinny Love” or “Holocene” and, yet, it feels right for the group. To fly away from guitar-based music somehow feels less like a cop out and more like a natural progression.
There’s something to be said for evolving in a way that stays true to a group or an artist’s direction. One of Bon Iver’s contemporaries, The Tallest Man on Earth, has followed a similar trajectory in that he, too, started with one man playing an acoustic guitar and has grown into a full-band ensemble.
The Tallest Man, the stage name for Kristian Matsson (left), progressed across the past decade at a pace that seemed deliberate and knowing, introducing first electric guitar and then other instruments and percussion until last year he toured with a band backing him.
All artists must continue to evolve their craft and experiment with something new, otherwise they risk becoming stale and losing relevance. Some make the turn toward commercial appeal and many fans cry “sell out.” Such cries were heard during the past decade when Kings of Leon smoothed out its sleazy Southern rock for accessible grandeur.
Was that a sellout move? It’s hard to put that label on anyone. 2008's Only by the Night was a conscious move by the band to enter the mainstream and gain some commercial appeal, but it also felt like the direction the band was headed, much like the way Tallest Man and Bon Iver’s career tracks have felt like the next logical stops for them.
Maybe an even better example is Taylor Swift, who’s moved from country pop to just plain pop during the past decade. That the same person made “Our Song” and “Blank Space” seem unlikely, but that’s how she’s changed to stay relevant and progress her sound.
In Bon Iver’s case, as Robin Hilton for NPR’s “All Songs Considered” pointed out this week, the seeds for Bon Iver’s digital transformation were planted long ago. In a clip of “The Wolves (Act I and II)” from Bon Iver’s 2007 debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, Hilton noticed a quaver on Vernon’s voice as he sings “lost” in a backing vocal. It shows Vernon has played with vocal processing since Bon Iver was with him cooped up in a Wisconsin cabin to write its first songs.
After “Wolves” came “Woods,” tucked away on 2009’s Blood Bank EP (cover at right), which Kanye West sampled and used as the basis for his 2010 track “Lost in the World.” The continued collaboration between West and Vernon – two men who love production and vocal manipulation – on multiple records makes a song such as “22 (Over S∞∞N)” feel like an obvious destination for Bon Iver.
It would be more difficult to absorb if “22 (Over S∞∞N)” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” felt like aberrations, but they seem right in the pocket for Bon Iver. They are remarkably different from where the group started, but they fit with where its creative director, Vernon, has been headed during the past decade.
If the new songs had more in common with Swift’s recent pop material, now that would be a real shock.