Bon Iver: 22, A Million
By Steven Norwalk
“It might be over soon.” These are the words that open 22, A Million, the first album from indie-folk band Bon Iver in over 5 years. The phrase is pitched-up, processed and placed atop a wavering voice whose single note loops for the duration of the song. It’s a startling statement, made even more evocative by its musical context, and it marks a transition in the band’s philosophy. Bon Iver’s last two albums, For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver, were rooted in people and places respectively. 22, A Million exists in a world where the impermanence of those people and places threatens to render them meaningless, where numbers seem to be the only constant of our existence, where we are continually confronted with life’s ephemerality. In other words, it exists in a world that “might be over soon.”
The album is not only a philosophical departure, but a musical one. The band, led by singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, pushes its already expansive sonic palette to new extremes. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” features the harshest electronics the band has ever put to tape —distorted drums tumble over each other as a synth bass squelches underneath—while “21 M♢♢N WATER” is built upon an alternately luscious and jarring ambient backdrop. Yet, even when Vernon explores this experimental territory, his melodies retain the simple beauty that has defined his work from the beginning.
22, A Million is a departure in another sense: for the first time, Vernon’s is not the only voice featured prominently on a Bon Iver record. The album is peppered with a multitude of vocal samples that crystallize briefly before disappearing into the aural mist. They are fleeting, but they imbue the songs that surround them with emotional power: the snippet of Mahalia Jackson’s performance of “How I Got Over” from the March on Washington; a nearly unrecognizable fragment from Stevie Nicks’ backstage performance of “Wild Heart;” Lonnie Holley’s pitch-adjusted proclamation of “all my goodness” on “33 God.” These moments last for only a few seconds, but they resonate. Just like the most important moments of our lives, they leave their mark and then vanish.
Many of these samples sound distant, out of focus. Listening to them feels like catching the best part of a record being spun in the other room. Their rough-hewn edges are not an anomaly, either. Vernon and his band deliberately cultivate a sense of rawness throughout the album, be it the clipping heard on the third chorus of "29 #Strafford APTS" or the audible breaths of saxophone player Mike Lewis on “____45_____.” Like the dripping paint of a modernist canvas, this approach to recording draws attention to the mechanisms by which the album’s aesthetic experience is created, momentarily pulling the veil off of the immaculately constructed sonic landscapes to remind the listener that this is just a man and his band doing what they love. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Vernon stated, “There are people who are straight-up into being famous. And I don’t like that.” In a sense, the unpolished moments on this album are a representation of that idea, a reminder to fans that Justin Vernon is not some mythical figure, but rather an ordinary human being. More importantly, however, the glitchy electronics and rugged vocal samples serve to undercut the computerized and processed elements of the record. Vernon seems to have taken inspiration from his frequent collaborator, James Blake, who employs a similar technique on his debut album. By embracing imperfection in their work, both artists transform alien-sounding music into something familiar, something imperfect, something human.
As much as the album represents a departure for Vernon and his band, in many senses, it is the logical continuation of their past work. Vernon’s lyricism is as abstract ever, still more rooted in images and sounds than concrete storytelling, and songs like “8 (circle)” employ the sumptuous saxophones and synths that were introduced on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Yet, even when treading familiar ground, the band strives to create something new and innovative. Take “715 - CRΣΣKS,” a vocoder driven meditation on the transience of love. It is immediately reminiscent of Vernon’s vocoder work on “Woods,” but also markedly different. Whereas on “Woods” Vernon recorded dozens of vocal lines and then layered them on top of each other, “715 - CRΣΣKS” is the product of one vocal line, filtered through a homemade device that creates harmonies live. The result is a more direct, visceral, and devastating performance, ideally suited for the lyrics’ dark exploration of the abandonment felt after a relationship’s dissolution.
Thematically, 22, A Million delves into challenging territory. The lyrics stare life’s mysteries in the face and boldly address the frustrations of existential uncertainty. These preoccupations are on full display during the album’s towering centerpiece, “33 God,” in which Vernon questions the ability of religion to clarify the human experience. The song’s title, named for the age at which Christ died, recalls Jesus’ moment of doubt and pain, and lines like “I know so well that this is all there is” and “Why are you so far from saving me?” reflect Vernon’s own distrust of religious promises. Over the course of its 3:33 (the track length is surely not a coincidence), the song develops from a gentle piano motif into an expansive atmosphere, eventually reaching a breathtaking climax that feels simultaneously weighed down and transcendent. “33 God,” like the rest of 22, A Million, is an awe-inspiring feat of composition, arrangement, and production that refuses to shy away from life’s toughest questions.
The final song on the album, “00000 Million,” miraculously manages to tie the album’s previous 30 minutes together. For one, through some of the record’s most poignant lyrics, Vernon comes to terms with his depression and accepts life’s pain and ambiguity. The comforting melody and chord progression that underpin his words are musical sighs of relief, giving voice to Vernon’s newfound peace. But, less obviously, a vocal sample woven into the track’s chorus also helps to resolve some of the album’s open-ended questions. Several times throughout the song, we hear Fionn Regan’s tender voice sing: “the days have no numbers.” These words feel, at first, out of place, given that the record’s entire aesthetic is built around mathematical relationships and cryptic numerology. But when placed in the context of Vernon’s struggle to understand existence, they begin to make sense. By refusing to designate our experiences through pure rationality, these words suggest that there may be no way to truly organize, analyze, or even comprehend our lives. And that’s okay. 22, A Million reminds us that, even if we never truly understand what it means to be human, we can still take the time to appreciate what makes living beautiful.