There’s a pretty good chance my feelings about Bon Iver’s new album are a bit tainted. Certainly, I’ve enjoyed Justin Vernon’s music for a while, whether it’s Bon Iver, Shouting Matches, Volcano Choir, or any other of his projects. However, in August of this year, I truly became a fan when I experienced Bon Iver live at Eaux Claires. Not only was it my first time seeing him perform live, but it was the debut of all the songs that make up his new record, 22, A Million. And, admittedly, every time I listen to the first track on the album, 22 (Over Soon), I am immediately emotionally transported to that moment, to that amazing experience. So, I bring some baggage into first impressions of Vernon’s most recent creation.
Those considerations aside, the most definitive thing I can say about the album is that it moves me deeply. I resonate with the words of one of my favorite artists, Derek Webb, who when describing 22, A Million, simply stated, “mind/heart blown.” Yep. I get that. Me too, brother. Me too, brother.
Frankly, in a vacuum, it would be surprising to me that I am so drawn to this music. Vernon employs so much Autotune and constantly manipulates everything electronically. There are times when it seems like I’m listening to a warped cassette tape. I’ve gathered that’s what he was trying to create, but that kind of stuff usually grates on me. For instance, one of my favorite tracks on the album is 29 #Strafford Apts. It builds a little and offers a high-note crescendo, with emotive movements throughout. But, just as we’re getting to the main crescendo, the payoff is muddled by that warped tape sound. Again, this would normally turn me off… and yet I continue to be drawn in. And then there’s the whole principle of using current technology to make sounds reminiscent of older technology, and specifically it’s failings. Yeah, usually, that’s not for me… and yet I can’t walk away.
There is something magnetic and provocative about 22, A Million that I can’t even really describe. Certainly, Vernon and his team have worked hard to build some mystique and intrigue around its release. When he debuted the album at Eaux Claires, each song was accompanied by vivid, yet distorted video imagery. And as each song began, the official Eaux Claires app would inform us of the name of the song. Throughout the first day of the festival, Sam Amidon and his Guitarkestra walked the grounds, teaching everyone the words and melody of the album’s finale, 1000000 Million, “where the days have no numbers…” so we could all sing along later that night. Then, there were the “unique” listening parties a couple of days before the release in which hundreds of people would show up to catch an audible glimpse of the album as it was played on a small boombox (a fairly fruitless venture, from my personal experience). Certainly, the cryptic artwork on the cover/liner notes add to the mystique as well.
Another element contributing to this mystique is the utter unpredictability of the album. I mean, seriously, the first few times I listened, I had little idea what was coming next, not only between songs, but in the middle of each individual track. It is all over the place in the most precise, intentional manner. It leverages unique samples, traditional rock/pop instrumentation, incredible creativity, and Vernon’s signature falsetto to create a meandering, yet purposeful work of art.
I don’t know what the lyrics are really about, other than to say it certainly seems as though Vernon is tackling some deep and heady subjects. There’s God, the Devil, numerology, hope, and despair, among other such issues. All of this seems to come together in a central message. I’m not sure what that message is yet…but it seems to be something powerful. Something meaningful. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.
As an Eau Clairian, it is incumbent upon me to be at least interested in Bon Iver. I’ve gone from being interested, to liking, to being an all-out fan. My 22, A Million experience has solidified that. And even now, as I listen to the emotive closing anthem of the album, 1000000 Million, my heart is captured and held in suspense. The emotional tension and grip is almost palpable. I expect that captivity, suspense, tension, and grip to hang on for a while to come.