Artist: Bon Iver
Album: 22, A Million
In Brief: Some call 22, A Million an astounding work of art, some call it a messy headache that’s been Autotuned to within an inch of its life. I land somewhere in between. Some intriguing ideas here and there, and I come back to the album a lot, but it’s too scattershot to really hold my interest.
Bon Iver, the nom-de-plume of singer/songwriter Justin Vernon, is one of those artists who has been intriguing to watch as he continues to decontrust himself more and more over the years. His trajectory seems to be an accelerated version of Iron & Wine‘s – earn early critical acclaim with a set of very simple acoustic home recordings, then graduate to more of a full-color production as your work begins to seep into the mainstream, then realize your work runs the risk of getting too mainstream and easygoing, and do your darndest to intentionally confound people’s expectations. We’re only three albums into Bon Iver’s discography, and we’ve already arrived at the most drastic phase of deconstruction, which in Vernon’s place seems to have been brought on by a period of personal crisis and discomfort with fame, a la Radiohead during the lead-up to Kid A or Sufjan Stevens during the long break before The Age of Adz. It’s no coincidence that Bon Iver’s third album, the numerologically-themed 22, A Million, often gets compared to those sorts of lurching-left-turn-in-the-career-trajectory albums. We certainly heard our fair share of electronic voice manipulation, diverse and layered instrumentation, and other sonic surprises not expected from an acoustic-guitar-slinging songwriter on the Blood Bank EP and Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the latter of which got me into the band (project? guy? I struggle with my pronouns whenever I talk about Bon Iver) in 2011. Not a whole lot new happened between the end of that album’s touring cycle and now, except for a bit of buddying around with Kanye West (who knows a thing or two about pushing the limits of Autotune, I guess) and an announced hiatus that gave Vernon time to labor torturously over the songs that would become this surprisingly short (seriously, it’s just over half an hour) and bewilderingly byzantine little record. No matter your entry point into the album, you can tell that this thing was designed to rebel against the most obvious of fan expectations and attempts at genre categorization. I really admire it for that on principle, but it sure is a mess to listen to.
The obvious theme to this album is numbers, though much like the various map locations and abbreviated that the songs on Bon Iver, Bon Iver were titled after, the connection between the numeric name of each song and its actual content isn’t always made explicit. The song titles alone are a mish-mash of abused dingbats designed to make an unwitting torrent downloader suspect that he might just get a computer virus upon listening to any one of them. If fits the cryptic nature of the album’s sound, which turns sharp corners from the expected soothing melodies, to red-lined percussion sounds designed to challenge the ear, to glitched-out vocal melody, to sparse balladeering seemingly without rhyme or reason. And of course, if you’ve listened to Bon Iver for any length of time, you know that the sound and texture of the letters being pronounced tends to mean a lot more than the actual words strung together as conventional lyrics – Vernon will straight-up invent a word at times, and at least in the best case scenario, you can feel where he’s coming from even you have no idea what the heck he means. Working through personal demons, finding patterns amidst chaos, and coming to some sort of a peaceful resolution when all is said and done, seem to be a few of the themes that emerge here, but translation is a tricky business when the same sounds that are euphoric to some ears could be downright terrifying to others. This is a highly polarizing record by design, and while a lot of critics have showered it with praise for its boldness, I can’t quite seem to get there myself, despite how much time I’ve invested in trying to make myself love it. It’s just… a sort of interesting document of a turbulent time in an artist’s life. That’s as hyped as I can manage to get about this one, unfortunately.
1. 22 (OVER S∞∞N)
The opening track, while it’s no “Perth”, is still a strong introduction to the new Bon Iver sound, that finds Vernon using sampling and vocal manipulation to great effect. Nearly the entire backing track seems to be constructed out of a voice singing “It might be over soon”, and snippets of this phrase played back at slower and faster speeds, looped back on themselves to create a trance-like drone that inexplicably gives way to cathartic melody. Vernon’s yearning voice is pretty much the only link back to the Bon Iver of old, though once the guitar comes in, it’s a little easier to picture the more organic creation of the song, with the vocal loops (and the Mahalia Jackson samples!) being icing on the cake rather than the entire focus of the sonic experiment. This one seems to end abruptly just as it’s getting going, but since the song seems to describe being on the verge of feeling like you might break out of a depression and turn the corner into a new chapter of life at any second, that’s probably appropriate.
2. 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄
This one’ll be the biggest shock to the system for most people. Bon Iver doing a bass-heavy, beat-driven track isn’t that far off the map, given some of the noisier breakdowns on his self-titled album, but the extent to which the drum programming is chewed up and spit out, and the deep, rumbling bass notes sound like they’re coming from speakers threatening to blow out at any minute, will probably be unsettling to the average listener. Kinda makes me glad I don’t have that amazing of a stereo system in my car, to be honest. To me there’s something inherently cool about the intentional screwd-up-ness of this song, and the little hidden nuggets of hostility in the heavily distorted mumbo jumbo that this song considers lyrics. I only catch glimpses of what he’s singing here, yet I totally get the sense that he was in the mood to burn stuff to the ground when he wrote and recorded it. So despite its initial off-putting nature, I’ve come to consider this one a highlight, and my only real beef with it is that it ends prematurely. I know I say that about a lot of short songs, but if you listen to the 22/10 single, which was released ahead of the album and contains the previous track and this one in the same order, you’ll find that both are extended by a little bit there, and deliberately cut short on the final album. There are actually some extra lyrics in the extended version, and while cutting them makes the segue a bit sharper, I still feel like something’s missing now that I’ve grown attached to that version.
3. 715 – CR∑∑KS
Oh brother, here comes the Autotune. Not that Vernon hasn’t already been playing with it – but that’s literally all there is to this song – just his voice, layered and Autotuned into oblivion. It may as well be “Woods, Part 2”, except there’s actually a lot going on lyrically here, rather than a single verse repeated ad nauseum. I expect this one could become a fan favorite due to the raw sorrow expressed in the lyrics, and the cathartic melody that’s actually pretty memorable despite all the annoying aural pixellation going on. “Honey, understand that I have been left here in the reeds” might be the line that gets to me the most – there’s some real loss and pain to be mined here, and I feel like I must be one of the only listeners out there getting too distracted by the deliberately artificial vocal sounds to let most of the song have the effect on me that it wants to. I do find myself wondering if the phrase “Turn around, you’re my A-Team” at the end is meant to be an Ed Sheeran reference. He’d be returning a favor, since Sheeran name-dropped a few Bon Iver songs on his last album.
4. 33 “GOD”
OK, back to the good stuff. This one feels like the most complete and fascinating track on the album, thanks to a strong piano melody that grabs the attention right away, good use of vocal pitch-shifting to create a sort of ghostly accompaniment to the lyrics, and some really freakin’ cool drums when the song really gets going, that remind me of the sort of existential, exploratory soundscape you might hear on a Flaming Lips album. As you might guess from the title, Vernon’s trying to work out some of his thoughts on God, religion, and how that all relates to his art, though if you’re looking for clear conclusions, you should probably know by now that most of his lyrics are gonna be a bit too esoteric to really give you that. What I can glean from it is that there’s a sense of bliss that was felt in room, perhaps in a hotel where he stayed on tour, where time just sort of stood still and the universe aligned and stuff just made sense. Then either he left, or someone he loved left him, and it all got thrown into chaos. The eerie, low-pitched voice at the end of the song asking “Why are you so far from saving me?” is the real gut-punch at the end of the song, which might be easy to miss amidst all the other sonic trickery going on. It’s a quote from Psalm 22, which given Vernon’s love of numbers on this album, probably means this song is meant to relate back to the song “22” in some way. And of course Jesus (who quoted the aforementioned Psalm on the cross) was crucified at age 33. Make of that what you will.
5. 29 #Strafford APTS
This song has an almost stubborn stillness to it. Fans of the old Bon Iver will probably welcome the more simplistic, acoustic backdrop, but it seems so hushed, so willing to fade into the background, that I feel like it works against the soft melodic crescendoes in the song’s chorus. Featuring a vocal contribution from Bon Iver’s touring drummer Sean Carey to cap off the fragile chorus, the song does have some interesting bits that stick out in my mind, but having heard the live version from when they premiered it at the Eaux Claires festival, and it had more of a well-defined rhythm and a sense of movement to it, makes me wonder why they went for such a “fade-into-the-background” approach on the album. I find the occasional bit of texture intriguing, like how the vocals occasionally warbkle as if they were on an old cassette tape, or how Vernon sings the words “Fold da map.” Little bits of amusement don’t add up to an overall interesting song, unfortunately.
6. 666 ʇ
You’d expect a song about the Devil’s number to be totally unnerving, but “10” already played that role, so I’m pleasantly surprised that “666” comes wafting in with a repeating pattern of tinkling synth notes and a graceful guitar and vocal melody. Musically it’s a bit of a cousin to “33”, especially in terms of how the drums build up intensity in the chorus. Lyrically, there’s a bit of anger to be worked through here, though the personal demons he’s exorcising seem to be les of the spiritual variety and more an expression of the art he wants to make versus the art people want to hear. No phrase sums this up more clearly than “F*ck the fashion of it, dear” – you can always count on Bon Iver to soothe you with dense poetry and then startle you with a well-timed curse, I guess. But I’d be selling the song short to sum it up as mere frustration and profanity – lyrically it may be one of the densest and most intriguing tracks on the record, and we’ll soon find that tracks where that’s true of the lyrics while the music remains engaging are in short supply as this record sputters through its final third.
7. 21 M◊◊N WATER
Here’s where it all really starts to fall apart. A beautiful, quite segue out of “666” seems to promise more of an ambient, transitional track, like some of the less attention-grabbing, but still soothing ballads on the self-titled album. But in three minutes of run time, I feel like we only end up getting about one minute of an actual song, with a minute of whispered buildup leading into it, and a minute of growing dissonance leading into a bizarre sax solo at the end. This one honestly feels like Vernon came up with an intriguing opening verse (“The math ahead/The math behind it/It’s moon water”) and then had pretty much nowhere to go from there, so he attached some experimental wankery to either side and called it a day. This is the rare song where I feel like it fits well into the overall flow of the album (the beginning and end are pretty much seamless with the surrounding songs), but it does a horrible job of segueing between the different parts of itself. It’s a thoroughly frustrating non-event of a song.
8. 8 (circle)
Infinity is just a sideways 8, right? Given the infinity symbols in the title of the first track, the association of the number 8 with a circular pattern is probably intentional, and we could probably study the underlying symbolism linking a lot of these tracks together for days… but you gotta have an interesting song if you really want me to dig deeper into it. Here, while I’ll give Bon Iver credit for reigning in some of the more annoyingly experimental aspects that have bogged down a few of the other songs, the light programmed drums and the gentle hum of a horn section feel so middle of the road that it may as well be a less daring “Beth/Rest” or a more anemic “Holocene”. I loved both of those songs, but as a naggingly familiar vocal melody loops and loops again throughout most of this song, I find myself tuning out what I’m sure is another set of immensely fascinating lyrics. This was the first song I heard from the album, by way of the band performing it live on The Tonight Show, and despite Jimmy Fallon‘s boyish excitement about the cool band setup with the three turntables and various players in the background all doing their different things, I kept anticipating the song to change midway through in some startling way that never happened. So this is basically the easygoing, radio-friendly track that would get singled out by process of elimination on an album where everything else is too weird for radio to touch.
In this song, Justin Vernon would really like you to know two things: (1) He got caught in a fire, and (2) He stayed down. Those are almost the entire lyrics of the song, which I want to a describe as a sax solo without a band to back it up, but apparently the weird, brass-y warbling that serves as accompaniment comes from an instrument that Vernon and a bandmate invented, and that requires two people to play it. Maybe some sort of a squeezebox that plays like a horn? You can hear it opening and closing and making weird little functional sounds, and apparently they got a kick out of that in much the same way that an acoustic guitar aficionado enjoys hearing the little squeaks and scrapes of their instrument being played. It’s a cool concept, and unfortunately, not the kind of thing I’m interested in actually listening to for more than the thirty seconds or so it takes me to wish he’d shut the hell up about fires already. They throw in some plunking banjo at the end as the song fades out, but it’s connected to nothing else and does nothing to help a song that was pretty much dead on arrival.
10. 00000 Million
The final track feels like something unearthed from a forgotten age. Here, Bon Iver lays off of the vocal manipulation (for the most part – the refrain is actually based around a vocal sample, “The Days have no numbers” pulled in from a completely different song) and sticks to simple voice and piano. Since the lyrics were actually passed out in booklets resembling hymnals at the Eaux Claires festival, it’s pretty clear that the hymn-like cadence of this one was intentional. It’s a moment of stark beauty and more clear-headed reflection at the end of a confusing album, which is undercut by its melodic similarity to “Beth/Rest” – we’ve kind of gotten to the point where nearly every snippet of melody in most of these songs only brings to mind the tune of a better song, unfortunately. Bon Iver’s love of alliteration is demonstrated beautifully through this song, and there are some good cathartic moments here, particularly in the intriguing final gasp of “If it harms me, it harms me, it harms me, I’ll let it in”. But as with “29”, a lot of the song is mixed so quietly that I feel like it doesn’t do justice to the gentle majesty it seems to be hinting at. I’m not saying I needed a huge, melodramatic coda like the long outros of “Beth/Rest” or “Re: Stacks”, but this one just seems to come to a close on an abrupt whisper, and I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve used those two words to describe the same thing.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
22 (OVER S∞∞N) $1.50
10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ $1.25
715 – CR∑∑KS $.50
33 “GOD” $2
29 #Strafford APTS $.25
666 ʇ $1.50
21 M◊◊N WATER –$.50
8 (circle) $.25
00000 Million $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: