“Yearning” and “heartbreak” permeate Bon Iver’s 2008 folk album, For Emma, Forever Ago, like frost in February. An aching chill seeps into your bones, intensified by frontman Justin Vernon’s falsetto echoing over a weeping acoustic guitar. If For Emma, Forever Ago was winter, then Bon Iver’s 2011 follow-up, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, was spring.
Five years later, Bon Iver’s latest album, 22, A Million, isn’t a season at all. It’s something else entirely. Void of a definitive time and place, the experimental LP pulls you into Vernon’s fragmented mind as he questions everything: the universe, anxiety, impermanence, faith, duality, and the nature of our very existence.
Vernon’s friend, Trever Hagen, probably put it best: “The ten songs of 22, A Million are a collection of sacred moments, love’s torment and salvation, contexts of intense memories, signs that you can pin meaning onto or disregard as coincidence.”
22, A Million uses auto-tune and vocal distortion to create songs that bend genres and strain against our understanding of what constitutes music. Vernon worked with engineer Chris Messina to create a new hardware program, the Messina, which crafted much of the album’s electronic sounds along with the software, Prismizer.
Every song title on the album includes a number. The first song, “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” echoes the record’s title. “22 stands for Justin,” Hagen wrote, “The reflection of ‘2’ is his identity bound up in duality: the relationship he has with himself and the relationship he has with the rest of the world.”
“22 (OVER S∞∞N)” immediately hurls you into Vernon’s existential pondering. It opens with a distorted vocal loop and the words “it might be over soon.” What “it” actually is is left up to the listener’s interpretation. Life? The career of Bon Iver? I hope not.
“Where you gonna look for confirmation?” Vernon asks the listener next. Well, Justin, I don’t know. But now I want to keep listening in the hopes that maybe this album will help me figure out the answers to questions I didn’t have five minutes ago.
The following song, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” is set in motion by a pounding bass that sounds like something from a military march on Mars. The song is disorienting, unusual—a far cry from Bon Iver’s previous melancholy folk ballads.
For staunch fans of Bon Iver’s traditional sound, this album may be difficult to digest. Vestiges of Vernon’s classic balladeering can still be found, however, in “29 #Strafford APTS” and “8 (circle).” In the former, soft acoustic guitar is accompanied by the occasional distortion of Vernon’s vocals that always makes me check my speakers to see if an internal mechanism has busted. That’s the only way the sound can be described.
The sound of “715–CRΣΣKS” is an evolved version of Bon Iver’s 2009 song, “Woods,” and heavily reminiscent of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy era. In fact, West once cited Vernon as his “favorite living artist” in an interview with BBC Radio One, and sampled “Woods” in his song, “Lost in the World.”
“21 M♢♢N WATER” is a soft, meandering tune that culminates in grating dissonance. The song strikes me as misty, nocturnal—though that could just be because of the title. Though I don’t actually know what “moon water” is, the song seems to reflect on time’s impermanence in Vernon’s signature lyrically fragmented manner.
I’ve listened to this album at least 10 times since its Sept. 30 release, and I’m still constantly finding new layers and words and meanings in each of the ten songs. Vernon’s lyrics often don’t make sense. The final verse of the album’s final song, “00000 Million” is: “I've been to that grove/Where no matter the source is/And I walked it off: how long I'd last/Sore-ring to cope, whole band on the canyon/'When the days have no numbers'/Well it harms it harms me it harms, I'll let it in.” I’m not sure what that means, but I think it’s beautiful.
Once again, Hagen described the album more eloquently than I ever could when he wrote, “22, A Million is thus part love letter, part final resting place of two decades of searching for self-understanding like a religion … If music is a sacred form of discovering, knowing and being, then Bon Iver’s albums are totems to that faith.”