Justin Vernon's 22, A Million is both frustrating and moving

William Butler Yeats' 1919 poem, The Second Coming, contains a prescient line which sums up the revolutionary changes of the 20th century: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."

Almost 100 years later, Eau Claire, Wisconsin musician Justin Vernon's "difficult" third album 22, A Million achieves an equivalent tension between form and free fall for the 21st century.

The album crackles, slips, hides behind numerology (22 is the singer's number) and obscure points of references. You hang on to every semblance of a traditional melody as it gets hijacked by white noise. Vernon's voice breaks apart into a thousand splinters. The results are frustrating. Yet, they are also oddly and ultimately moving.

Those who have been lured into the charms of Bon Iver via a pretty cover of his song, Skinny Love, by a then English teenager Birdy are thus in for a shock.

Yes, 22, A Million is leap years from Vernon's debut as Bon Iver in 2007, his elegaic record For Emma, Forever Ago, but repeated listening reveals that the guy has always intimated this evolution.

  • EXPERIMENTAL/ELECTRONICA

  • 22, A MILLION

    Bon Iver

    Jagjaguwar

    4/5 stars

To start with, For Emma isn't a typically folksy record or even a break-up one. Vernon had already started to manipulate sounds, not least his manly falsetto which can occasionally give way to his grizzled alto.

His subsequent releases, the Blood Bank EP (2009) and the Bon Iver, Bon Iver album (2011), continue to subvert genres and expectations. Idiosyncratic misspellings of places' names in the latter record point to a fiercely individualistic vision, for instance.

On 22, A Million, he has reached a milestone: going for the jugular, zooming in on strictures and conventions of naming, with song titles as personal as 29 #Strafford APTS and 21 M··N WATER.

The former track invokes a memory of "sharing smoke in the stair up off the car lot", as drummer Sean Carey shadows Vernon over quietly plucked guitar riffs, their voices almost fraying as if recorded on tape eons ago.

The album is bookended by two songs that give the album its name. The opener, 22 (OVER S··N), is prefaced by the mantra "It might be over soon", as Vernon sings over a sustained electronic line, "Where you gonna look for confirmation?"

Sampling Mahalia Jackson's live performance of How I Got Over, sung minutes before Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963, the song sets its tone for personal and artistic salvation. Inspired by a Greek trip gone wrong, the track is testimony to the singer's ceaseless urge to move, to not rest on one's laurels, to find hearth in whatever environs he finds himself in.

The album ends with the 10th track, 00000 Million, which reads as "one million", where Vernon's voice, closer and clearer, appears to have found home indeed.

"If it's harmed, it harmed me, it'll harm me, I let it in," he confesses over echoey piano, a man coming to terms with his lot - the bad and the good.

A line from underrated Irish singer Fionn Regan's Abacus track is sampled throughout - "the days have no numbers" hangs like a spectral memory from the past, even while humanity tries to impose rules and regulations over the endless march of time. Things fall apart, you must find your centre.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2016, with the headline 'Melody hijacked by white noise'. Print Edition | Subscribe