This review took a weird turn. Instead of just jotting down my snap reaction and moving on to the next one, I did some research to see what people's responses to this album were. And, shock of shocks, the masses think its a masterpiece. Even though Bon Iver started out as a folk act, he has morphed into some kind of electronic...thing that sort of defies description. It's got a Metacritic score of 87, which means it's got "universal acclaim".
What do I think? That's a harder question to answer...
Bon Iver "22, A Million"
It's points like this where I have to wonder if this music is actually popular or if the numbers have been inflated over the years. The song titles are the absolute gibberish of a broken LCD calculator and the music seems to match. This really sounds like an attempt at whitewashing "The Life Of Pablo", without any understanding of what makes Kanye West interesting in the first place. (And that's coming from someone who doesn't even like "The Life Of Pablo".)
"22, A Million" is trying to do something capital N "New" but doesn't quite get there. It sounds Different with a capital d, but not really New. And not interesting, even with a lower case. If Mumford & Sons covered "Metal Machine Music", you might be close to describing this album. (Bonus: "_ _ _45_ _ _ _" sounds like me playing a harmonica through an autotune processor. And I can't play the harmonica.)
[Blogger's note: This is where I intended to stop the review.]
The thing is, when I read customer reviews for this album, it made me think my opinion is not only wrong, but can never be valid. This album is "so beautiful" that people are literally going to put it on as background music and it forces them to stop what they're doing and weep at how breathtaking it is.
I feel nothing when I listen to this.
Am I broken? I have to wonder. A lot of people are giving this five stars and saying this is life-affirming or life-changing. It sounds like songs that aren't even finished to me. It doesn't even sound raw, it sounds like he's barely trying. (Though that can't be true, because it took him five years and literally inventing new electronic music equipment with his producer to do it. Effort with a capitol fucking E was put into this.) But do I think that because I've been listening to, absorbing, writing, writing about and thinking critically about music for my entire life and I "know better", or am I so goddam cynical that I can't feel what everybody else is feeling when they hear this? Am I incapable of finding the true beauty in something like "22, A Million", a beauty that should be patently obvious, or are these fans being gassed and their testimonials not to be believed?
2016 is the year that reality slapped us all in the face and dared us to challenge it, left us no choice really but to challenge it, individually, collectively, as a species, as nations, as groups with common interests...on every level, really. And I think we're all finding ourselves more than a little lacking...
After listening to the samples a second and third time (something that deeply goes against the spirit of these reviews, which were designed to be hot takes nearly a decade before that was a buzz term), I still don't like the album. But I can understand on some level that people could connect to it. There's something there, but I don't think it'll ever be for me. I don't know, mainstream. Your music is getting too weird for me.
You'll also notice that I haven't changed the rating from zero stars. I don't have to like an album to respect it. And I don't have to respect every aspect of it to admit it may have artistic merit. (But I still feel like not understanding this album makes me a soulless piece of shit somehow. I don't want to live in this world anymore.)
[P.S.: People's reactions on Twitter have been pretty universal: This album makes people cry. And most of them don't know why. Especially because they "can't understand the lyrics". I've had that reaction to music before (the saddest song I've ever heard has three languages in it, only one of which I speak), even to instrumental music, and I think it falls under the concept of sympathetic vibration, also known as sympathetic resonance.
My first knowledge of it came from the first Patlabor movie (I think; could've been the second), where the enemy has a weapon that destroys things with vibration and they explain how it works with a story about soldiers in WWII marching lockstep across a bridge and the perfect synchronicity of their footsteps causing a frequency that made the bridge resonate in a destructive fashion, causing it to collapse.
My point is: Music can do the same thing to you and your emotions. I think this is why "22, A Million" is having such an effect on everyone. The songs aren't particularly well crafted, the lyrics are obscured on purpose and the structures are deliberately challenging to the border of pretentiousness, where it definitely steps over the line more than once... But the songs resonate with people because Bon Iver stumbled across a frequency that makes people feel things. I don't call that a parlor trick; I call that an accomplishment.
So I guess bonus half star? Bonus half star.]