Five years ago (almost to the exact date as I sit and write this), I traveled from Boise, Idaho to Portland, Oregon and back - over seven hours each way - in less than 24 hours with my best friend Tori to see Bon Iver perform. Many other friends from Boise were also driving over for the same show on a much less restricted timetable, but Tori’s college schedule made this impossible for us. Bon Iver’s music had already made a serious impact in both of our lives, and would continue to do so, but the experience of seeing it live was a transformative one, which was undoubtedly worth the exhaustion.

Since then, I have struggled with whether I wanted another Bon Iver album. After all, Justin Vernon has done amazing work outside of Bon Iver both before Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and since. Whether it be the two albums each from Volcano Choir and The Shouting Matches, or collaborations like his surprising but impeccable work with Kanye West, or the criminally underrated R&B slow jam super group Gayngs.

Bon Iver’s third album, 22, A Million, however, breaks down any trepidation I had about a new Bon Iver album, while proving that Justin Vernon is a master at swerving around assumptions and repetition in favor of reinvention and progression. It would be a massive understatement to say it was a bold choice for Justin Vernon to so severely depart from the things that initially brought him so much attention and adoration among indie music fans. This admiration started with the stripped folk of For Emma, Forever Ago, his renown growing with the follow-up record, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, into Grammy wins and SNL parodies (being played by Justin Timberlake, at that). However, the decision to once again evolve his sound was clearly not made either haphazardly, or as a direct and spiteful rejection of these older techniques. Instead, it is a transcendent evolution of Vernon’s musical voice.

On the song most closely resembling Bon Iver of days past, ‘29 #Strafford APTS’, Vernon sings in his familiar falsetto over bright, pleasant acoustic guitar. However, despite how safe this song seems, compared the rest of 22, A Million, the irreverent distortion of Vernon’s signature falsetto clearly demonstrates that his old formula has been superseded. One of the hardest things for any artist to achieve is to become known and loved for something, and then swerve in a new direction while retaining their artistic identity. With 22, A Million, however, Justin Vernon shows that his greatest skill as a performer is not simply his ability to craft beautifully original music, but is found in his knack for seamless reinvention.

Since For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon’s unique falsetto has been such a hallmark characteristic of Bon Iver that it had the very real possibility of becoming their defining feature in a reductive and negative way. However, instead of letting this become a trope, Vernon has expanded the use of his voice through the use of things like autotune, glitched-out vocal sampling and other idiosyncratic vocal effects, as well as expanded use and quality of his lower register. On Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the growth away from the wintry and isolated atmosphere of For Emma, Forever Ago was bombastically established in the initial moments of the opening track ‘Perth’, with bright and chiming electric guitar, followed by a snare drum march that crests into a triumphant and declarative entry of the rest of the band. By starting their second album this way, Bon Iver signaled that it wasn’t going to simply stay within the musical lane that For Emma, Forever Ago was in.

Similarly, the evolution of Vernon’s voice, and what the role of vocals on 22, A Million is made clear on opener ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, as the first things heard on the album are two layered vocal samples. If Vernon has taken anything away from his collaborations with Kanye West, it is clearly his approach in using vocals in a wide variety of unexpected ways, breaking out of traditional uses and into innovative fashions to use voices as instruments themselves. In this way, it is fitting that these vocal samples come in before Vernon begins singing, just as Vernon’s voice is the first one heard on West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Overall, on 22, A Million, Bon Iver delivers a scattered, unexpected and unpredictable experience, that still somehow manages to remain cohesive and engaging from beginning to end. It throws off the expectations of the past without disappointingly abandoning the things that endeared Bon Iver to people in the first place. Instead, these things are reimagined and brought forth in new ways. The sum of its parts adds up to Bon Iver’s most challenging work to date; 22, A Million is an album that rejects comfort and expectations in favor of provoking listeners to make new discoveries. If this challenge is taken, it is a rewarding experience that only grows in beauty with each listen.