Review: Bon Iver's Justin Vernon asks — and invites — big questions on '22, a Million'

Looking back, it makes sense that nobody could agree on what Bon Iver’s second album was called.

Was it simply “Bon Iver,” as some, including the Grammy Awards, referred to it? Or was it the more complicated “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” as many of the record’s rave reviews had it?

The lack of consensus five years ago reflected a growing uncertainty about Bon Iver’s identity — a mystery that only intensifies with Friday’s release of an excellent new album “22, a Million.”

Is Bon Iver a person? A band? A physical location?

The answer seemed plain enough in 2008, when the first Bon Iver album appeared, a stark yet tender document titled “For Emma, Forever Ago” that singer-songwriter Justin Vernon created largely by himself in a remote hunting cabin in the Wisconsin woods.

But then came that gorgeous and confounding 2011 follow-up, for which Vernon set aside the solo-troubadour act and assembled an expansive cast of players to help realize a plush chamber-pop sound.

“Bon Iver” (or whatever) went on to sell more than half a million copies and win Grammys for best new artist and alternative music album; it also led to Vernon becoming an unlikely collaborator with Kanye West, further removing this modest Midwesterner from his indie-folk roots.

Except that Vernon stuck around his tiny hometown; he built a recording studio there and an ambitious music festival, as if to argue that his songs rely above all on place — not merely a state of mind, but an actual city in an actual state.

“Bon Iver, Bon Iver.” Like New York, New York.

Vernon is in no rush to clear up any of this — to harden ideas about himself or his art — on “22, a Million,” which represents an even bigger leap than Bon Iver’s previous record.

“Where you gonna look for confirmation?” he asks to open the album in “22 (Over Soon),” and the blissed-out way he sings it suggests he knows there’s none to be found.

Indeed, much of the music here, which submits ostensibly hand-played arrangements to all manner of electronic effects, feels designed to upset expectations.

In “10 Death Breast,” that means a bludgeoning percussion loop and a harsh fuzz-bass line; in “21 Moon Water” it’s a high, piercing saxophone lick that crowds out Vernon’s soothing falsetto. (In the album’s densely decorated packaging, some song titles sport typographical flourishes like an infinity sign in place of the letter “O.”)

Even “29 #Strafford Apts,” which starts out in a finger-picked acoustic mode à la “For Emma, Forever Ago,” eventually takes a surprising harmonic shift with strings that give the tune a dreamy old-Hollywood vibe. And several tracks do away with guitar altogether, including “715 — Creeks,” a woozy a cappella piece with Vernon’s singing digitized into a virtual choir, each voice darting off in its own direction.

He’s no easier to pin down as a lyricist. “Oh, the old modus / Out to be leading live,” goes one typically cryptic line in “00000 Million,” “Said comes the old ponens / Demit to strive.” Elsewhere, “10 Death Breast” has talk of “dedicoding every daemon” and being “unorphaned in our northern lights.”

In the few interviews he’s given about “22, a Million,” Vernon has described how little pleasure he takes in celebrity, and often here you get the impression that he’s using his words as a kind of shield to protect himself from unwanted scrutiny. Ditto the assorted vocal samples of singers such as Mahalia Jackson and Paolo Nutini that he employs throughout the album, another strategy to keep us from understanding him as a solitary confessor.

And yet occasionally he’ll drop a startlingly concrete image like the one in “33 ‘God’” about how he’d “be happy as hell if you stayed for tea.” (Later in that song he goes even more specific, mentioning, of all things, a stay at the Ace Hotel.)

Or he’ll put away the processors and showcase singing so raw, as in the bluesy “____45_____,” that you can’t help but recall the sad guy from Vernon’s first album.

He still lives there in Bon Iver. He’s just not alone anymore.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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