Bon Iver: ‘22, A Million’

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Bon Iver: ‘22, A Million’

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It’s hard to put a label on Bon Iver. Some might try to call them folk because of the soft acoustic guitar picking and gentle melodies that often appear in their music. But any attempt to label them or compare them to music that already exists has been tossed aside by their latest studio effort, “22, A Million.”

Without listening to the album, one can guess that it is quite odd just by reading the song titles. A few good examples are “8 (circle)”, “____45_____”, and “21 M??N WATER”. It’s like modern E. E. Cummings. The album cover shows off various religious and spiritual symbols such as doves and crosses. It is just as cryptic as the song titles and creates a sense of mystery before listening.

The first track is titled “22 (OVER S??N)”. A single electronic note is repeated throughout the song and sounds like it was intentionally poorly mixed. High-pitched voices sing, “It might be over soon.” Hopefully this doesn’t refer to the album, which is only 34 minutes long. Then the familiar, heavily affected falsetto of the band’s founder and lead singer Justin Vernon enters and asks “Where you gonna look for confirmation?” The song evolves into a collage of backup vocals, guitars and brass instruments, as if someone pasted music together like scraps of paper. The whole album has this feel, but it works, and it works well.

The first three songs set the tone. They contrast each other so much that it’s hard to believe they could be on the same record, but the album rests on this dynamic and changing flow. The percussion in the song “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ? ?” sounds like it is being dragged over rocks and makes the listener want to shake their head to the scratchy-but-uniform beat. The song “715 – CR??KS” features two minutes of robotic Vernon vocals pleading, “God damn turn around now, you’re my A-team.”

The record begins to show links to Bon Iver’s folk past as piano and guitar riffs take the helm in songs like “33 ‘GOD’” and “29 #STRAFFORD APTS.” This doesn’t last how long, however. Electronic elements dominate the music until the finale, “00000 Million”, which oddly sounds the most like past Bon Iver songs.

Perhaps the most powerful musical moment of the album is the climax of “29 #STRAFFORD APTS.” The drone instruments in the background die out and there is only the folk-style guitar along with the words “I hold the note you wrote and know you’ve buried all your alimony butterflies.” But the words are cutting out as though there is an improper headphone jack connection. It should sound horrific, but instead, it is strangely appealing, and it adds to the meaning behind the words.

The lyrics of the album are strange. They are available on the band’s website where one can read them in full e.e. cummings fashion. “I” is not capitalized and punctuation is used liberally. But with repeated listening, one can begin to discover the sense of confusion and the odd emotions that the narrator feels. The album ends with the words “Well it harms, it harms me, it harms, I’ll let it in.” It can be about self-discovery and acceptance, but it’s really up to the listener to make sense of it.

Vernon himself said that you should listen to the album in a “place where you can feel alone.” That is hard to do in such a connected world. But the effort should be made because Vernon has created something that no one has ever heard before. “22, A Million” is a new type of music, and the truth is when you listen to it, it really is over too soon.