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There’s a line deep in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice wherein Doc, a small-time stoner-sleuth, considers the dissolution of the 1960s, wondering if the decade wasn’t merely “a little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness.” It’s a funny way to think about time—that an entire era can be nudged back into the ether, erased. But on 22, A Million, the extraordinary third full-length from Bon Iver, Justin Vernon echoes Doc’s somber pondering. These are fluttery, skeletal songs that struggle against known trajectories and then threaten to disappear entirely. 22, A Million might be musically distant from For Emma, Forever Ago, the collection of aching folk tunes Vernon debuted in 2007—mostly gone are the acoustic strums, replaced by lurching, electronic gasps born from the Messina, a doctored combination of the Prismizer software plug-in and some hardware that was invented by Vernon and his engineer, Chris Messina. But the albums share an ideology. All things go, taken back into darkness.
22, A Million is certainly Bon Iver’s most difficult record; it’s the work of a songwriter who seems to have lost interest in established, easily deciphered forms, a possibility Vernon has been hinting at for nearly all of his career. In 2006, Vernon, then living in North Carolina, was emotionally razed by a perfect storm of shitty turns: his band broke up, his relationship dissolved, he came down with an acute case of mononucleosis. He did what any reasonable person with an eye toward self-care would do: decamp to his family’s hunting cabin in rural Wisconsin, drink a gang of beers, watch endless hours of “Northern Exposure,” and write a batch of lonesome, yearning folk songs on his acoustic guitar. His high, brittle falsetto gave these pieces an otherworldly quality, as if they had blown in on a particularly cold wind.
For Emma, Forever Ago was, in its own way, an experimental record—Vernon’s vocals and phrasing are deeply unusual; its stories are impressionistic, fractured—but because it’s so heavy with heartbreak and loss, it feels intimate, authentic, easy. 22, A Million is comparatively strange and exploratory, but its worries are more existential. The album opens with a high, undulating voice (Vernon, singing into an OP-1, a combination synthesizer, sampler, and sequencer) announcing, “It might be over soon,” and goes on to examine the idea of impermanence. Nearly all of its songs contain a question of some sort, as if Vernon’s own reckoning with the inevitability of decay has led him to interrogate every last thing he’s seen or known. Inasmuch as his lyrics are narrative—and they have always been more connotative than exegetic—he seems preoccupied with whether or not a life has meaning. “Oh then, how we gonna cry? Cause it once might not mean something?” he asks on “715 – CRΣΣKS.”
Kanye West once called Vernon his “favorite living artist,” and has long professed a deep and unexpected admiration for “Woods,” the closing track from 2009’s Blood Bank EP, and an obvious precursor to “715 – CRΣΣKS,” itself a kind of warped a capella jam. “Woods” featured no instrumentation, but is merely five minutes of Vernon singing through Auto-Tune, in ghostly harmony with himself. In retrospect, “Woods” feels like a revelation: it was not only an unexpected affirmation of pop’s future—artists aggressively distorting their vocals, feeding their voices into machines in order to build spectral, nagging songs that reflect alienation, arguably the reigning sensation of our time—but of Vernon’s own trajectory.
Plenty of beloved contemporary artists, from Dylan to Neil Young on, have ditched the supposed purity of folk music to push the work harder, to make art that’s less reliant on a tradition and invests, instead, in the strangeness of the present moment and collective uncertainty about the future. Trading on preexisting pathways—it’s too easy. Vernon isn’t alone in his hunger for true, tectonic innovation, for songs that seem tethered to and reflective of their actual time and place: Radiohead has been mirroring anxiety about the encroachment of electronics and virtual living since Kid A, a record that also required them to warp if not abandon their beginnings as a guitar-rock band.
Beyond its sonic striving, 22, A Million is also a personal record about how to move forward through disorienting times. Vernon occasionally employs religious language to express his anxiety, some explicit (“consecration,” “confirmation”), some more plainly vernacular (“So as I’m standing at the station,” “I could go forward in the light”). He samples two gospel tunes: Mahalia Jackson’s live version of “How I Got Over,” from 1962, and the Supreme Jubilees’s “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” from 1980. There is a song titled “666 ʇ,” and another titled “33 ‘GOD.’” A bit of marginalia in the album’s liner notes (“Why are you so FAR from saving me?”) is attributed to Psalm 22, though in the King James Bible, that imploration is for help, not salvation (“Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?”). Either way, Psalm 22 opens in medias res: its author is undergoing an urgent crisis of faith. So is Vernon?
Maybe. Musically, Vernon resists not just verse-chorus-verse, but all the ways in which Western cultures have come to conceptualize narrative. As kids, we’re taught how stories work, and we use that rubric to organize and make sense of the events of our lives. But the imposition of structure can be violent; perhaps, Vernon suggests, the idea that we are organizing events at all is patently nuts. So when he ventures a line like “We’ve galvanized the squall of it all,” from “8 (circle),” it feels like a mission statement. There is solace in resisting formal structures, in both acknowledging and embracing a certain amount of chaos.
It’s the same story on “00000 Million,” the album’s haunting closing track, where Vernon samples a wobbly line borrowed from the Irish folksinger Fionn Regan: “The days have no numbers.” Pitted against the record’s obsessive numerology—each song has a number in its title—it lands like an admission of defeat. There’s resignation in his voice, which gives way to desolation. The song’s lyrics will be familiar to anyone wondering if they’ll ever actually start to feel better, while still continuing to do something they know is hurting them: “If it’s harmed, it harmed me, it’ll harm me, I let it in.”
For a while now, Vernon has been building songs in a modular way, and there are moments here (like the meandering last minute of “21 M♢♢N WATER”) where it feels as if he could’ve jiggled the pieces together a little more—where his disavowal of connective tissue feels less deliberate than random. This is evident, in part, because he is exceptionally good at writing melancholic laments in the highly structured style of ’80s soft-rock giants like Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Hornsby (Vernon has covered Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and Vernon and Hornsby have collaborated on several occasions; “00000 Million” feels like it could have been recorded by either).
“8 (circle)” is the most immediately reminiscent of Vernon’s last record, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, itself now recognizable as a clear midpoint between Emma and here; it’s also the album’s most conventionally composed track, with the smallest amount of vocal manipulation. Elsewhere, Vernon’s vocals are filtered until they begin to actually dissolve, as if they have been dunked in a tub of lye. The song’s stunning emotional peaks—I come to a full stop every time I hear Vernon sing, “I’m standing in the street now, and I carry his guitar,” his voice steady and deep, as if he’s announcing himself to someone he loves—are so plainly beautiful it’s hard not to mourn, briefly, for the Bon Iver of yesteryear.
But 22, A Million sounds only like itself. There are precedents for all of Vernon’s moves deep in the histories of rock‘n’roll and rhythm and blues and electronic music—and, more immediately, on newer records by West, Frank Ocean, James Blake, Chance the Rapper, Francis and the Lights, and Radiohead. But this particular amalgamation is so twitchy and idiosyncratic it feels truly singular. Its searching is bottomless.Share