Five years after the release of their self-titled EP, and an astonishing eleven years after the release of For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver is trekking its way through a new musical terrain.
Do not fret, though, for there is comfort to be found in the ever-consistent and mellifluous vocals of frontman, Justin Vernon, a heady dose of auto-tune, and all-new themes – at the center of which is existentialism. 22, A Million is a nuanced compendium of tracks that are vibrant, eccentric and laced with trippy sound effects – and underneath all of that, Vernon manages to sneak in some characteristically beautiful and pensive lyrics. It is authentic, explorative, and a raw account of what goes in the multi-instrumentalist’s head at this new period of life, reflected through the often chaotic and contemplative sounds.
As heart-wrenching as it is significant, Bon Iver’s latest album, titled 22, A Million, was debuted at the Eaux Claires Music Festival in Wisconsin. Vernon’s affinity for his hometown has long been declared through his music, and the folksy feeling that his first albums had had certainly gathered their inspiration from the town. The sentimental connection to his hometown has indeed proven time and again to be a driving force behind his intensity and authenticity.
The unique construction of a deeply emotional For Emma, Forever Ago was the result of Vernon’s frustration with his illness, leading to his subsequent isolation in his father’s hunting cabin near his hometown. You know how Bon Iver has that distinct ability to make you relate to it (in your very soul) without even hearing the lyrics? I had always wondered why – and it’s because Vernon wrote the melodies in a way that would convey his emotions first, and then set it to lyrics afterward. Such is evident in Skinny Love, wherein you feel the emotion before you hear it, as Vernon cries now I’m breaking at the britches / and at the end of all your lines / who will love you? / who will fight? / who will fall far behind?
Vernon’s significant experiences with pain, including his mononucleosis, the demise of his band and his relationship with his then-girlfriend, all led him back to his hometown, in search of solace and an opportunity to put himself back together.
Two years after the release of Vernon’s introductory album came the release of Blood Bank, a four-track EP that is, overall, more uplifting, countering the soft, slow pain that drenched For Emma. A cool fact: Woods was sampled in Kanye West’s Lost in the World (who has also been quoted as crediting Justin Vernon as his favourite living artist). Though it is a short album, it is succinct in its richness and emotion, and is a tentative update on Vernon’s neuroses.
22, A Million is a careful articulation of who Justin Vernon was, and who he has become. Of particular note is the soulful, melancholic crispness of 8 (circle), symbolic of the forever Bon Iver, and the wistful crooning in 29 #Strafford APTS carries a familiar, romantic warmth, especially in the relatable, disjointed lyrics of there ain’t no meaning anymore / (come and kiss me here again).
Around two months before the release of 22, A Million, Vernon’s former bandmate and long-time friend, Trever Hagen, wrote a long, deeply expressive letter about Vernon, the new album, and the immense importance and relevance of each individual song. He also explains the excessive use of numerology, noting that 22 ‘stands for Justin’; it is a significant, recurring number in his life, against the ‘million’ other people and things that he encounters. The album, according to Hagen, is Vernon’s sacred, tormented and intimate confessions that deal with love, loss, and impermanence.
22 (OVER S∞∞N) kicks off the album with a fulfilling beat but lyrics that contemplate a life that is fleeting, encouraged by the sampled, wistful voice singing it might be over soon. It sets the scene for the theme of 22, A Million, with the repetitive chiming of 2 reiterating its importance to Vernon, always in the back of his mind, as the song deals with trying to hold on to what is important. In essence, it is coloured by a familiar romance, encouraged by the dreamy saxophone and the delightfully delicate introduction of the guitar.
10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠ is more of an electronic dream piece, propelled by intense percussion and heavy auto-tune. Vernon transcends in this track; ending on a disappointed and accepting taken in the tall grass of the mountain cable / and I cannot seem to find I’m able.
715 CRΣΣKS is filled with warped, mournful beats, ending on god damn / turn around now / you’re my A-Team. This track is heaviest in its voice manipulation, symbolic of some chaotic ambiguity that punctuates the album. Personally, 29 #Strafford APTS is the track that makes me weep uncontrollably. It is filled with piano, guitar and passionate notes that echo the rise and fall of Vern’s lyrical pondering.
33 “GOD” is whimsical, dreamy, and buzzes with a darkness that Vernon so cleverly disguises with more sampled vocals that acknowledge brief memories, of moments that are so full one moment but over soon (when we leave this room it’s gone). The piano is dominant in this track, reminding us of Vernon’s dedication to classic undertones, but overlapped by his fondness of trippy sonic rhythms.
8 (circle) is a nostalgic call-back to the Bon Iver we knew, light on the voice manipulation, leaving behind a rich anthem soaked in emotion. ____45_____ is a gentle, repetitive, soulful confession, and a perfect track before the haunting, final track 00000 Million. This track is heavy in its lyricism, Vernon reaching a kind of catharsis, accepting the pain and impermanence of existence where the days have no numbers / it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in.
22, A Million is permeated by existential wondering and self-awareness, but ultimately proves that what lives on in this album is Vernon’s ability to create songs that reverberate in your soul. Misty at times and in perfect clarity at others, this is him working through emotions and memories, declaring his humanity over fractured, yet full, rhythms.
Vernon’s heart and soul have, essentially, exploded onto a musical canvas, and 22, A Million deserves to be handled with care. It is evident that Vernon has navigated the construction of this album with as much love and attention as an ordinary, talentless jabroni would devote to a relationship. But unlike those losers, and in spite of his belief in transience, Vernon is unwittingly at the helm of something inimitable and magnificent that will last forever.