Review: 22, a Million by Bon Iver and Okey Dokey by Natural Child

Review: 22, a Million by Bon Iver and Okey Dokey by Natural Child
Courtesy Photo 22, A Million, by Bon Iver, was released Sept. 30 on Jagjaguwar Records.

Courtesy Photo
22, A Million, by Bon Iver, was released Sept. 30 on Jagjaguwar Records.

22, a Million by Bon Iver


Recent memory serves that when modern artists such as Radiohead or Wilco embrace a wild stylistic shift on their records it’s regarded by critics as “genius.” Consider the shift from Wilco’s A.M. and Being There toSummerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or Radiohead’s transition from The Bends to Kid A and OK Computer.

So why is Justin Vernon’s latest Bon Iver record, 22, A Million getting the proverbial stink eye from some critics and fans? Sure, it’s a departure from the eponymous release…but even that was a departure from For Emma, Forever Ago.

It’s interesting that the musical direction on22, A Million may isolate some fans, because when you strip away the electronic sonic landscape, the idea of embracing/grasping and coming up empty and isolated is a lyrical theme throughout.

The record is also filthy with cavernous references to numerology and religion (the track 33 “GOD” clocks in at 3:33) that we can’t even begin to decrypt in this limited column space.

Sonically, the mood is married nicely to the lyrical themes of loss and isolation. Counter to other Bon Iver records where Vernon seems to put heavy import on place, the narrator on 22, A Million, sounds like a ship at sea, grasping for some semblance of port, but unfocused on finding it (on 33 “GOD” singing “these will just be places to me now…”).

Guitars have been replaced with heavy synth (save for the beautiful opening moments of “Over S∞∞N” featuring a lush chimey-clean guitar). Vernon’s signature falsetto vocals remain, as does his penchant for creating a mood around infectious melodies.

Two words that come to mind after repeated listens to the 22, A Million are “anger” and “soul.”

There’s so much soul on this record – mostly in the vocal delivery. The particularly soulful “8 (circle)” may be the closest Vernon gets to finding peace and place, teasing the listener about being on the verge of “going in” – perhaps to a more stable place – only to reveal that the dreamscape was a likely acid trip (“I’m underneath your tongue”) providing a partial break from reality – ending when the narrator “keep[s] waking up high.”

There’s clearly some catharsis happening on this record; the whisper over acoustic guitars exchanged for screaming over tortured beats and synth. Departure or not, this is Vernon’s most inspired work. Someone should definitely write a dissertation about 22, A Million.


This is definitely going to be an album that’s going to be talked about for a long while, as it certainly impacted 2016’s already stellar lineup of releases. It’s a very dense record full of glitchy editing, synths, autotune singing, saxophones and moody vibes. I’d categorize this as “art music,” if that isn’t too pretentious.

One thing is for sure, Justin Vernon has come a long way since the somber, folk classic that was For Emma, Forever Ago. I think Justin Vernon is riding that art high he must have picked up from working with Kanye West. As intentional as every part of this album sounds, it also sounds very free and unplanned in moments.

I think you’re dead on about the album’s descriptions of “anger” and “soul.” Each song seems to alternate between these two moods. The clearest anger example being “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”, which even sounds like a track off West’s Yeezus. “8 (circle)” is definitely a soulful highlight that many fans of Vernon’s solo work will enjoy.

I found the lyrics to be pure poetry. They look like they were carefully, maybe even painstakingly, curated in their structure and diction. After hanging out on the album’s lyrics pages, someone shouldwrite a dissertation about the album. The consistent themes of the duality of loss and attainment in relation to romance and memories are cryptic, but nonetheless fascinating.

On “____45_____” and “715 – CRΣΣKS”, Vernon makes use of the Messina, an instrument invented by his studio engineer Chris Messina, which essentially randomizes harmony melodies to what’s being played or sung. The effect is beautiful, as chaotic as that sounds.

Now, did I enjoy it? Yes, but the album certainly comes off as convoluted and self-important — occasionally distractingly so. It is a beautiful, impressive work. It’s something you need to sit down with headphones and embrace. Listening to the album otherwise is like hearing a concert from the closed back door of a venue.

Recommended if you like: FKA Twigs, James Blake, Sigur Ros

Courtesy Photo Okey Dokey, by Natural Child, was released Sept. 16 on Natural Child Records.

Courtesy Photo
Okey Dokey, by Natural Child, was released Sept. 16 on Natural Child Records.

Okey Dokey by Natural Child


The first time I spun Natural Child’s Okey Dokey, there was just something so rightabout how it sounded. There’s a consistent, hazy groove throughout it all that playfully flows and hooks you in. I mean to say this album rocks, and it’s a helluva lot of fun.

At their core, Natural Child are a dirty country hippie blues band. They’ve been making some pretty consistent records the past five or so years, and Okey Dokey picks up right where the band left off with the easy-going flow ofDancin’ with Wolves. Although, it sounds like there’s a lot more LSD and pot involved this time around.

Okey Dokey is the most impressive album — at least musically — I’ve heard from Natural Child. For several albums, the music was limited to a blues-rock trio’s capabilities. Benny Divine’s Wurlitzer and piano playing is heard throughout, and it kills. There’s also plenty of whirly, flubbing synthesizer on the hazy tracks that really give the album a definitive psychedelic vibe. The dual guitars going on are also definitely noticed and appreciated, especially on the solos-for-choruses “Juanita.”

There are still plenty of elements of core Natural Child on the record, though. “Transcendental Meditation” is probably the most classic Natural Child blues song, with “It’s a Shame My Store Isn’t Open” being the clearest departure — they’ve got psychedelic flutes, man. Flutes.

You can still find the cheeky lyricism of the band in songs like “Transcendental Meditation” and “NSA Blues,” where vocalist Seth Murray croons “Don’t mind if we watch your place / There’s always a camera pointed at your faces / We’ve seen all your cats / We know when you’re jerkin’ off.”

The highlights for me were the pure old-school country-rock “Juanita,” the retro-Stones style “Now and Then” and “Self Centered Blues.” Those were definitely more of the traditional songs, but I also really dug the very groovy jam on “Benny’s Here.”

I found this record to be instantly likeable, and the boys really nail that elusive, retro “timeless sound.” Natural Child have hit their stride on this record.


I think you nailed it when you said this record is “a helluva lot of fun.” I had a buddy once refer to a song (Delaney and Bonnie’s “Comin’ Home,” to be exact) as a “bona-fide two-windows-down jam!” It’s rare enough that you get a song like that on a record, but boy, howdy. Okey Dokey is a record full of two-windows-down-jams.

This record makes me want to don tattered blue jeans, a denim jacket, Pat Travers Band t-shirt and hop in my 1979 ford pickup and go “crusin’ chicks!” In fact…hang on. I’ll be right back.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the Allman Brothers influence, specifically on “Juanita.” I see your “pure old-school country-rock” and raise you unadulterated Southern Rock.

Natural Child is another one of these new Southern Rock bands steeped in the traditions of the Skynyrds/Allmans/Hatchets but with a heavier nod to punk rock roots (think the Drive By Truckers, the Dexateens, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires) but still singing about social conscious/social justice issues. Take “NSA Blues” with it’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics about the government spying on everyone. The song may be simple, and the lyrics elementary, but it could easily generate conversation in any Political Science or Sociology class on a college campus.

It’s almost like you can play “spot the influence” on this record – consider the rollicking “Self Centered Blues” which sounds like it wouldn’t have been out of place on The Band’s Big Pink.

And although it only clocks in at 1:59, I think I just got a contact buzz listening to the title track.

This record came out a few months too late, as it would have been an awesome companion to the summer. That said, I’ll leave you with this question, Nick: when we cruise chicks in my ‘79 Ford, what is the first tune we’re gonna play from this record to serve as our soundtrack?

Recommended if you like: Rolling Stones, King Tuff, Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers

Categories: Music