Photo from Nirvana’s Facebook Page
There’s lots here. As weird as this may sound, I hope there is something here that will mess with you deeply, in all the right ways. Feel and heal, friends.
I know, I know. This feels like it could have been impacted at least slightly by the artist’s hometown. Yes, I live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and Justin Vernon resides in the area. But I swear, this recognition has only been indirectly influenced by that reality.
The truth is, like many of us Chippewa Valley denizens (let alone people around the globe), I have been aware of Vernon’s various music projects for years. And, I have appreciated his earlier Bon Iver work, as well as his work with Shouting Matches, Gayngs, Volcano Choir, and others. He is clearly talented and committed to his art and his craft. None of that changed in 2016.
What changed for me this year, regarding Justin Vernon, has everything to do with my own personal experience of Vernon’s genius. That experience began at the second annual Eaux Claires. I won’t recount too much of what that weekend was like for me, as I shared it some time ago in my post, The Eaux Claires Impact: Connection and Belonging. But, without trying to sensationalize anything, it was in some ways a life-changing experience for me. And Vernon’s imprint, obviously, was all over those two days.
Certainly, my initial Eaux Claires experience in and of itself was enough to make me a bona fide fan. But it was Bon Iver’s 2016 release, 22, A Million, that cemented the deal. That record, of course, was also ingrained into Eaux Claires. Vernon debuted the entire album live during the first night of the festival. That was my first time hearing Vernon/Bon Iver play live, and it was absolutely incredible. The new music was mesmerizing, and I felt like I was a part of something important that night.
22, A Million is an amazing record. Again, I wrote about that a while back as well, in my post, Caught in Bon Iver’s Web… 22, A Million. Just like the Eaux Claires experience and the Bon Iver live show, this album has captivated me in ways I would have never expected. Because of all these factors, as well as Vernon’s inarguable influence on the cultural path of the Chippewa Valley and western Wisconsin, Justin Vernon is this year’s Tomme Suab Artist of the Year.
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.