It’s been five years since its last album, Bon Iver, and the world has changed. But so has Justin Vernon. 22, A Million is undoubtedly ambitious, but that is to be expected from an artist whose success is built upon nonconformity to the traditional indie aesthetic (Bar the beards of For Emma, Forever Ago and typing the infernal song titles. I doubt Bon Iver is sadist, but they clearly know their symbol keyboard shortcuts). The whole notion of indie music has changed since its debut album. In Carl Wilson’s brilliant article, “Against ‘Indie,’” that appeared in Slate last year, he states that “the comebacks of many flagship 2000s bands show it’s time to eliminate this out-dated, insular, and implicitly racist term.” This article referenced five bands in particular: Belle & Sebastian, Sleater-Kinney, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and Sufjan Stevens. While 22, A Million is by no means a comeback album, it is a ‘coming back.’ A lot can happen in five years.
Pitchfork, too, published an article by Sarah Sahim last year called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie.” It’s a passionate offensive against the term and probably a bit harsh, but she said what needed to be said: we’re all sick of white hipsters trying to be Arctic Monkeys or bearded folkies picking up banjos, singing about some wise, nonexistent brother in verbed out harmony trying to be Mumford & Sons.
Vernon knew he had to change. Like Neil Young after Heart of Gold, Bon Iver found itself in ‘the middle of the road’ and bored, so tit ran as far as it could in the opposite direction. Predictably, this means that instead of a cheap microphone, a USB interface, and an acoustic guitar, the recording is not only more sonically complicated, but more layered, too. Chris Messina, who engineered the album, and Vernon developed an instrument called the Messina (named after himself), which utilizes plug-ins and hand-built hardware to produce the sounds present on every track.
Listeners will find that 22 is Bon Iver’s most challenging album yet: it is by no means easy listening. Vernon’s work has always had a fascination with the ineffable. If one looks at the trajectory of Vernon’s songwriting from For Emma to 22, then it’s clear he has abandoned anything resembling formal song structure. Songs such as “29 #Stafford APTS,” “666 ʇ,” and the album’s closer, “00000 Million,” could belong on Bon Iver and wouldn’t be out of place, serving as a midpoint to 22.
Vernon sings, “It might be over soon,” on the opening track, “OVER S∞∞N.” Now 35, Vernon may not be having a midlife crisis, but he is questioning his larger relation to the world. It would be reductive to Vernon’s artistic ambitions and insulting to his intelligence to phrase this as a “what does it all mean?” album. Rather, one should view this as an album in which Vernon seeks to place himself within his past and future. If there is an essential thematic question of the album it would be: where am I now?
Though at first listen less lyrically-based than the previous two albums, Vernon has honed his craft even further in songs such as “715- CRΣΣKS,” which vies for the title of most poignant song on the album. Vernon laments, “How we gonna cry? / Cause it once might not mean something.” There is an aching temporality, but Vernon doesn’t slow down or whine, powerless to the passage of time. The song is a jumble of memories, but the song is chiefly concerned with surrendering to the fact that his question might be unanswerable.
“33 ‘GOD’” follows “715” and poses a similar question: “Is the company started?” Bon Iver’s lyrics have always demanded a degree of freedom in interpretation, but the restless quality of the song is best conveyed by Vernon’s rich, quavering falsetto, not his lyrics. Vernon openly acknowledged that working with Kanye West, who once called Vernon his “favorite living artist,” offered him the encouragement to experiment with this album. If one equates 22 to Kanye’s Yeezus, then Vernon’s artistic choices make more sense.
If there is one defining fault of this album, it is that we cannot help but wonder if some of the choices are more random than deliberate. On a song such as “____45____”, Vernon modulates and processes the saxophone brilliantly and it feels intentional. At times, though, one wishes on a song like “666 ʇ” that Vernon hadn’t just rolled the dice a bit more. We don’t deserve an answer, but after 34 minutes one may wonder what if “it once might not mean something?”
Featured Image By Jagjaguwar