The Sounds of Anxiety, One Year Later

Googling “the sound of anxiety” is a terribly unhelpful way to figure out what exactly the phrase means. Before long, you find yourself wandering through an array of links with titles like “The Sound of Anxiety (Scary Music!)” and the more heavy-handed “Anxiety Anticipating Scene Instrumental Background Horror Music.” These results showcase cheesy, faux-orchestral tracks that attempt to produce a feeling of anxiety in the listener, à la your average horror movie soundtrack.

But what type of music does grapple with the personal anxieties that listeners bring to the table? This past weekend saw the one-year anniversary of two albums that deal explicitly with this kind of anxiety: Bon Iver’s “22, A Million” and Jenny Hval’s “Blood Bitch.”

In these cases, these artists' embodiment of anxiety actually acts as a palliative. These are tense, aggravated, and, at times, brutally depressing sonic landscapes that face trauma head-on. Both musically and lyrically, Bon Iver and Jenny Hval dismantle anxiety with anxiety. A year after their releases, these albums still speak to our collective sense of psychological trauma while offering their own forms of solace.

The first thing you hear on “22, A Million” is the phrase “It might be over soon,” looped over a squeaky, distorted drone. A far cry from the warm, fuzzy tones of the first two Bon Iver releases, Justin Vernon’s words come from a guy who’s been thoroughly freaked out.

In a statement accompanying the release of this album, Bon Iver collaborator Trever Hagen pointed to Vernon’s overwhelming sense of anxiety about fame, personal relationships, and the possibility of writing new music when the creative well seems to have run dry. This was the psychological backdrop for “22, A Million,” a canvas of emotional fragmentation that led the band in an entirely new direction. After five years, Vernon was able to make creative strides by leaning into his own sense of brokenness.

Vernon and his engineer Chris Messina went so far as to design their own instrument, “The Messina”, that allowed them to capture a kind of vocal quality for which conventional instruments aren’t as well suited. The instrument combines several types of tonal distortion by way of a synthesizer and was responsible for the vocal harmonies on “715 – CRΣΣKS” and “____45_____.” Both tracks are marked by their cracked, lonely vocal performances that translate Vernon’s (and the listener’s) anxieties into sound. And at the same time, these tones manifest themselves as something totally beautiful. It’s hard not to be moved when Vernon begs, “Turn around, now, you’re my A Team.”

“Blood Bitch” is concerned with an entirely different sort of anxiety, but still manages to find healing in the sonic nightmare. Rather than stemming from a swell of fame or a loss of faith, the trauma of Jenny Hval’s music is tangible and embodied. Musically, “Blood Bitch” is far less dense than “22, A Million.” But where Vernon’s songs are fractured, Hval’s are tense in their apparent coherence. “Conceptual Romance” is essentially a dream-pop ballad which, if it were performed by any other artist, would feel like rainbows and lollipops on a warm summer’s day. But in Hval’s hands, the song is dark and twisted – a shocking psychological evocation, rather than a dreamy love song.

“In the Red,” the album’s third track, represents Hval’s most direct confrontation with anxiety. It begins in dark, turgid percussion before giving way to the sounds of hyperventilation. Hval pants hard into the microphone for about two minutes before gasping, “It hurts … everywhere ….” More of a sonic vignette than a conventional song, “In the Red” captures the sort of bodily anxiety with which Hval struggles on this album, but also functions as a cathartic release. 

A year after the release of “22, A Million” and “Blood Bitch,” it strikes me that these two albums, together, constitute the “sound of anxiety” in distinct yet connected ways. Vernon’s chosen ground is the psyche, where Hval’s is the body. Both artists find ways to harness distress in their music and use the sound of anxiety to forge a form of optimism in the face of trauma. A year later, the continued need for that optimism should come as no surprise. ​