+/- 2800 Words on Bon Iver’s 22, A Million

By Charlotte Freccia ’19

It’s hard to overstate my love for a little band from Wisconsin that turned big: anyone reading this who knows me knows that I am certifiably obsessed with Justin Vernon’s nom-de-band, Bon Iver. Anyone reading this who does not know me and for any reason doubts my certifiable obsession, I lead you to the love letter to the band I published on this platform last semester. As further proof that my devotion to Bon Iver has become almost religious in nature, I’ll let you in on the little secret that I am not only constantly designing and re-designing plans for one Bon Iver-inspired tattoo, but three (1). I know that I am not even yet 20 years old, but given how important music has been in my life thus far, I can only imagine that it will continue to remain a life-giving force for the rest of my time on earth. I will discover countless new musicians to which I will feel inextricably connected. If I am lucky, I will see those artists live, will own their discographies on vinyl, will meet them in bars or in the backstages of famous venues at sold-out shows. But in all my life, I can confidently say, I will never love a band like I love Bon Iver. I just won’t. I’m not sure how I know this. But I do.

So imagine my distress when, in September of 2013, Vernon made remarks in an Australian talk radio interview that hinted at Bon Iver’s demise. It had been two years, at that point, since the release of the band’s self-titled sophomore album, and about the same amount of time since I had fallen head-over-heals-irreversibly in love with Bon Iver. It was simply unbearable––thinking about the dissolution of my favorite band at a particularly vulnerable time in my life, when I considered them standing on a mountaintop, preparing to take the proverbial leap into what would surely be a dazzling, durable musical career. In the meantime, though, Vernon launched several exciting new projects––significant collaborations with Kanye West, James Blake, and Frank Ocean! the curation of his own music festival in his beloved hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin! two excellent experimental LPs with another band, Volcano Choir! the discovery and production of some promising young musicians on his label, Jagjaguwar! a super-goofy appearance in the video for Francis and the Lights’s “Friends!” Then, in February of this year, my heart stood still, when I saw this Pitchfork headline: “Bon Iver ‘No Longer Winding Down.’” It was only a matter of time before singles from 22, A Million, Bon Iver’s third LP and their first in five years, gradually made their way to release, as did the typographically cryptic and puzzling track list. And then, only a few weeks ago, a release date was announced. Me, I was putting the album’s first single (and opening track) “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” on all my playlists and trying very, very hard not to literally shit my sad-girl pants.

Naturally, I listened to 22, A Million just as soon as I woke up on its formal release date of Friday, September 30. Which is to say I listened to it in that eerie, still, wonderland space between daybreak and sunrise, between 5 and 5:30 AM, because I woke up and simply could not go back to sleep. It was as if my body was telling me that it was time to wake and worship at the feet of my Favorite Band of All Time. I’ve done this a number of times, listened to a Bon Iver record while not doing much else but listen and lie in the dark of the early-early morning. It’s good for the soul (2). It’s probably my favorite way of listening to my favorite band, or of listening to any music that means a lot to me.

So, I listened to 22, A Million, between blue pinstriped sheets in a small, silent double room in Mather Hall, and I have pretty much not stopped listening to it since. It seems like a million (3) repeats of the album will not be enough for me to catch every dynamic detail, each masterful turn of gorgeous lyricism, each deeply-embedded musical or thematic motif. I want to listen to this album into the far future, over and over again, without ceasing, to try to embrace it, grasp it, say with certainty what it is, what it is about. But also, I don’t want to listen too much, become too familiar too fast. Because if I know anything about this band (4), it’s that it will be a while before they release anything new. I’m going to have to make this last if I want to discover something new in its many layers with each relistening. And I want to keep it at a distance, keep it sacred. But I want to draw it close, make it intimate. Needless to say, all my conflicted listenings and relistenings of this breathtaking masterpiece have FUCKED! ME! UP! Here is, in no particular order, a rather inarticulate list of all of my feelings: exactly what you didn’t ask for.

First things first: I do have to say, this is a devastatingly brief, compact album, coming in at only 34 minutes in duration. I want to be, like, I waited five years for THIS? But I also don’t ever, in any way, want to underestimate the emotional punch that Bon Iver can pack in such a small amount of time. Perhaps part of this album’s art is that it moves so quickly, so unapologetically: it’s a beautiful blur of gospel loops and goosebumps, so Bon Iver but so completely un-Bon Iver at the same time. It’s progressive, innovative, forward-looking, in a way that shows just how closely Justin Vernon has been working with visionary producer/musicians James Blake and Kanye West. It’s almost glitchy, with its original, textured use of digital effects like synths, loops, samples, processed vocals. Before, Bon Iver made you cry with just a guitar, but now it’s 2016, and they have a laptop, and you better GET THE FUCK READY! TO FEEL! LOTS! OF THINGS! In a very, very short amount of time. The brevity compounded with the density of this album indisputably contributes to its weight and power. Thereby, I tend to think of the slim 34-minute shape of the record as one of its strengths, rather than one of its weaknesses (5).

Despite the revolutionary new sound debuted by 22, A Million, Vernon’s aching vulnerability is at the emotional center of the record as it has been in all of his songwriting projects to date, both inside and outside of Bon Iver. His astonishing lyrical dexterity and verbosity (6) is on full display in the new record, too. Here are some of my favorite moments (with commentary attached, natch) from 22, A Million:

  • “715-Creeks” might be my favorite track on the album (obviously it’s hard to pick just one) and it is just full of jagged, evocative lines as Vernon’s synth-dipped vocals are laid bare against an a capella backdrop and he sings of the same old unshakeable loss of love. This song sounds like “Woods” after a bottle of bourbon and a bad dream–– “Honey, understand/that I have been left here in the reeds/but all I’m trying to do/is pull my feet out from the crease.” At the song’s climax, he almost screams “Goddamn, turn around/now you’re my A-team.” Just go ahead and slit my skin, crack my ribs, and remove my heart. Just go ahead and do it, dude. Fuck.
  • In “33 ‘GOD” (7) over an eerily disembodied voice (8) that declares “I know so well that this is all there is,” Vernon sounds optimistic for the first and perhaps only time on the entire album: “I’d be happy as hell/if you stayed for tea.” This is maybe the most Bon Iver line ever written.
  • “8 Circle” opens as Vernon pleads with us to “philosophize,” to which, I’m like DUH, dude, that’s all your music has ever demanded that I do.
  • “29 Strafford Apts” (which puts up an impressive fight to “715 Creeks” for the prestigious title of My Favorite Song From 22, A Million) is the album’s most breathe-easy acoustic moment, which makes you feel like you’re back in that cabin in the Midwestern woods with the wind and rain battering its roof and walls. The track’s chorus reads like a list of non-sequiturs: “a womb/an empty robe/enough/you’re rolling up/you’re holding out/you’re bent prize/paramind, paramind.” Taken together, though, and filtered through Vernon’s distorted but still heart-wrenchingly soulful vocals, this all sounds like one long, melodic word pronounced in a mythical language you’ll never understand.
  • In “666,” Vernon ironically grins: “I’m still standing in the need of prayer”(9) in an extremely gratifying nod to the gospel genre that has influenced the best music produced in 2016.
  • Unquestionably, the emotional peak of 22, A Million comes late in the form of the album’s final song, “0000 Million.” The song’s refrain is close to unbearable: Vernon croons, “If it harms me/it harms me/it harms me, I’ll let it in,” cluing the devoted listener into the devastating, destructive pattern of love, loss, and self-sabotage that makes the emotionalism of Bon Iver’s music so consistently staggering. In the second verse of this track, Vernon lays down a truly crazy, distinctly hip-hop by way of late-jazz and Midwestern-folk flavored, compellingly tangled rhyme pattern, pairing “modus” and “gnosis,” “depose this” and “s’pose you can’t hold shit,” “what a river don’t know is” and “slow among roses.” Meanwhile, a low-fi sample of Irish folksinger Fionn Regan calls with melancholy for a simpler time when “the days had no numbers.”

It’s only in this line––not even one of brilliant Vernon’s own––that the entire premise of 22, A Million, is revealed; that the strange and uncomfortable nomenclature of the tracklist makes sense; that the entire thematic structure and symbolism of the album is explained. In Bon Iver, the band created a spectacular and stunning sonic and emotional landscape through places, real and imaginary, evoked in song titles like “Lisbon, OH” and “Hinnom, TX.” The most magical moments on that record, like the ringing, resplendent opening chords of “Holocene” or the hollow rhythmic transition between “Wash.” and “Calgary” were not grounded in physical place at all, but instead existed in some shadowy, nebulous space apart (10), where all that exists is the music and the listener.

On 22, A Million, Vernon works with a similar concept, only this time, he uses numbers to more eloquently emphasize the finality, the limitation, of his music’s reach. It’s no coincidence that this, the album he made us wait five years for, his most noisy, prog-y, knotty one yet, in which the presence of the digital and artificial contrasted with the homespun and organic is unignorable with every note, dropout, and rhyme, relies so heavily on the premise of otherworldly numbers and symbols. The presence of these motifs distances both musician and listener from the aching vulnerability that has always been the most characteristic aspect of Bon Iver’s lyric and sound, as if when the computers invaded Vernon’s cabin in the woods he and we could somehow forget just how deeply sad and relentlessly questioning he and we really are. From  the shadows and abundant hiding-places within 22, A Million, Vernon seems to ask us to go away, come closer: to him, to his music, to ourselves. Computers and other digital technology are often seen as things that slowly strip people of layers of personhood, and Vernon’s dependence on them in 22, A Million, is an ironic contradiction to the conception of computers as dehumanizing and heartless machines: here, the emptiness, the sharp metallic edges of Bon Iver-by-keyboard exacerbate the hollow feelings that were always present (and prescient) in Vernon’s resonant chords, emphatic drumbeats, and soulful vocals, sounding so much like the desperate performance of a choir of one.

It’s hard to articulate, but, if you take the numbers that are so lyrically and nominally pervasive on this record as symbols of the detachment inspired by the digitization of music, and of art as a whole, this final song and its quiet but powerful refrain (“‘cause the days have no numbers”) stands in poignant contrast. In the modern age, the computer age, we have a habit of assigning arbitrary numbers and figures to things that are artistically, emotionally pure. We break our very lives down into numbers, which are convincing smokescreens for our relentless emotionalism, which we can’t seem to shake despite our best attempts to rationalize everything. But ultimately, those smokescreens fall apart and those numbers fall away, because all we have is ourselves and our days and how we feel. Our days have no numbers. They are just days. They are just days that are imbued with significance, certainly, but this significance comes from the things we feel, the things we make in and of our days rather than by the numbers and symbols and trappings of order and rationality we give them with such compromised intentions.
Ultimately, 22, A Million, is Bon Iver at their best and most quintessential: it is jazzy, folksy, rootsy, sacred; it is obscure, yet intimate; inaccessible, yet starkly emotional; jaggedly noisy yet punctuated by remarkable clarity. It is the kind of music that you can only listen to alone, because it unapologetically demands at once a deep personal introspection and a total emotional transcendence of self: in this way, the album is a sonic catharsis. When I first listened to 22, A Million, in bed in the earliest morning, I felt alone in the world, but in the safest, purest way possible. I was reminded of the immortal lines of another famous philosopher/poet/woods-dweller, Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well, I contradict myself/I contain multitudes.” Sonically and thematically, 22, A Million, contains wonderful, powerful, mysterious multitudes that speak to the relentless reality of being.

  1. For those interested: “Everything that happens is from now on.” This is the opening line of the song “re:Stacks” from the band’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago. I want to get it tattooed somewhere on my body where I can see it with my own eyes without the help of a mirror––that is to say, not my back. I intend to get the word “miles” over my left wrist––the word taken from the exquisite dangling chorus of what might be the most commended track from 2011’s Bon Iver LP, “Holocene.” Then, I want to get the words “Over S∞∞n” on the inside of my left forearm––this taken from the track “22 (Over S∞∞N),” which opens 22, A Million. Thereby, I’ll have a tattoo inspired by each full album that Bon Iver has released. I realize this is maybe a dangerous precedent to set, as I’ll then feel compelled to ink my body with references to each LP the band puts out hereafter, which I hope is like thirty in number. But we’ll see. Anyway, all this to say, I really, really fucking love Bon Iver, and it has been an absolutely huge influence on my growth as an individual––my love, its influence, strong enough to make me want to make it a lasting part of my corporeal being.
  2. Or is it? Sometimes I wonder if I listen to Bon Iver all the time because I’m sad, or if I’m sad because I listen to Bon Iver all the time.
  3. Pun not exactly intended but, whatever, let’s go with it.
  4. I know much more than “anything” about this band, apparently.
  5. I don’t think this record has any weaknesses, just to make that perfectly clear.
  6. This is the songsmith who wrote “I was unafraid, I was a boy, I was a tender age/Melic in the naked, knew a lake and drew the lofts for page” and “Errant heat to the star/And the rain let in/The hawser rolls, the vessel’s whole and Christ, it’s thin” and made the advocate for  dense, complex, dynamic lyrics an important voice in the modern pop conversation.
  7. with those crashing drums so affectionately reminiscent of Bon Iver’s album opener “Perth”
  8. reminiscent of the one that sings the hook on Akon’s excellent 2004 single “Mr. Lonely” or the one who asks “What’s the matter? Your chicken taste like pork? You have triplets instead of twins?” in Janelle Monae’s even more excellent “Dance Apocalyptic”. I am really excited that something from a Bon Iver album reminded me first of hip-hop artists; gone are the days when Bon Iver just sounded like Ben Howard was fronting Iron & Wine in your saddest daydreams on a rainy day, and here are the days in which their musical applicability has grown enormously to include influences from even the most unlikely of places.
  9. i.e. this album, The Life of Pablo (especially “Ultra Light Beam”), Farewell Starlite!, and Coloring Book.
  10. It is, as Vernon croons in “Holocene,” a place “a part of me/depart from me.”

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