In a recent New York Times profile, Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver—while discussing his flagship musical project’s newest release—brought up a conversation he shared with Kanye West, doing so with the speed and comfortability that sounded like a person mentioning a chat with a very close friend. And it would make sense if that were the case: for the better part of the last decade, he’s been collaborating with Kanye, starting with a pair of songs—“Monster” and “Lost In The World”—on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Ever since, the two have consistently logged hours together—and, intentionally or not, in the meantime, Vernon has begun to closely mirror West on a number of other levels as well.
Talking to Times reporter Jon Pareles, Vernon said:
“I got in a friendly argument with Kanye West about the word humble once. He said, ‘Have you ever looked up the word humble?’ I was like, ‘Actually I don’t know if I have.’ And he showed me the definition of it, and it’s far more self-demeaning, kind of the problematic Midwestern ‘Sorry!’ mentality, than I realized.”
Of course, the concept of ‘humble’ is something that Mr. West is quite the expert on, describing his recent album as not album of the year, but album of the life, also complaining about his 9.0 album review on Pitchfork, instead saying that he deserved a 30 out of 10. Vernon doesn’t quite reach those outlandish highs, but the Bon Iver-Kanye West paradox certainly manifests itself within the music (and in a few other ways as well).
There’s a lot to digest in 22, A Million, Bon Iver’s third release, which at only a hair over 34 minutes long is also the band’s shortest record to date. Despite the compact run time, the instrumentation is rich, the vocals distorted, and the overall sound grandiose. It’s hard to even break down how many new sounds and innovative methods appear throughout the album’s 10 tracks, but despite a Kid A-esque use of synth and just general embodiment of a different sound, it’s still, somehow, inherently and unmistakably Bon Iver. Much of that has got to be credited to Vernon’s voice, switching between a falsetto pitch where it almost sounds to be harmonizing with itself, and a deeper register, sounding similar, maybe, to how Chris Martin might if he hadn’t squandered himself away into a pit of consummate blandness.
Vernon only released one full-length album as Bon Iver before meeting—and often joining forces—with Kanye, and that was the 2007 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Even this album, while sonically bearing no resemblances at all with West’s work, shares a minimalism, knowing exactly what it wants to accomplish, and doing just that. Where Kanye’s debut, The College Dropout, expertly blended soul samples and personal anecdotes in a straight-to-the-point way that hip-hop hadn’t quite seen before, For Emma also played it as straight as possible; in dealing with breakups both personally (with his girlfriend) and professionally (with a previous band), Vernon took a Salinger-esque trip to his father’s cabin in the Wisconsin woods, where he wrote and recorded the entirety of the record in isolation. There would be no big swings here. The only aim was to get out what he needed to get out.
The parallel continues when closely looking at Bon Iver’s evolution between 2007 and 2011, when the band put out its Grammy-winning second album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver. It’s here that the symmetry makes its most direct comparison; just as Dark Twisted Fantasy made a play toward the magnificent and awe-inspiring, sizable and expanding musically, so did Bon Iver, Bon Iver. From opening track “Perth” to standout single “Holocene,” the entire second record takes the rawness of For Emma, and dials it up to 11. The touring band for the record had to be massive, because, quite frankly, it was necessary. The music expanded, because Vernon demanded it.
And while the correlation isn’t quite down to a science (Bon Iver is only now coming out with a third LP, while Kanye’s The Life Of Pablo was his eighth), some of these parallels are impossible not to notice, and they continue outside of the studio, too. Quotes in the Times aside, Vernon also recently took a page out of the Kanye West playbook when he took a shot at Beyoncé for having her tour sponsored by Pepsi in an interview with The Guardian.
The problem, as fellow touch-and-go indie frontman Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes pointed out, is that this was largely a hypocritical comment: Vernon had only a few years prior done an ad campaign with Bushmills Whiskey (Pecknold has since deleted his post). It was a decision he publicly said that he regretted, but nonetheless, one that he made and would have to stick by. Just like his Kardashian-married friend, Vernon is not above occasionally falling victim to a bout of foot-in-mouth disease.
Even check out the official Bon Iver Twitter account. It’s not clear if Vernon’s running the page himself or if someone else has the reigns, but it is so distinctly West-like that there’s really not much room for debate. Ominous promotions, strange spacing, and overall eccentric usage of the medium, run aplenty.
22, A Million only furthers Vernon’s evolution while simultaneously evoking Kanye’s previous work. If Bon Iver, Bon Iver was Dark Twisted Fantasy, then the new record captures the futuristic minimalism of Yeezus. But 22, A Million reaches those highs, and then grabs up even higher. The album’s peak, quite literally, comes on its longest song. “8 (circle).” It’s over five minutes long, but paints the greatest picture of what Justin Vernon, and Bon Iver, is. There’s a little bit of every era. There’s the synthy, intense production. The harmonies are ever-present. The falsetto shows up, but so does that fleeting lower-register. Just as Kanye West so often does, Bon Iver goes for it all.
And just like Kanye West so often does, Bon Iver gets it all.
22,A Million is out tomorrow, 9/30, via Jagjaguwar