22, A MILLION by Bon Iver
Genre: Art Pop
Favorite tracks: “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” “33 ‘GOD’,” “8 (circle),” “___45___”
Justin Vernon opens up 22, A MILLION with a sample of a pitched-up voice on a tape recorder crooning “it might be over soon.” Vernon’s successful Bon Iver project explores new frontiers on their first release in five years, both sonically and thematically. 2011’s BON IVER, BON IVER garnered the band three Grammy nominations and one win for Best Alternative Music Album. But the band’s 15 minutes of fame were cut short when the frontman declared that Bon Iver’s well of inspiration had dried up and that the band would be taking a hiatus while its members explored other outlets. Over the last five years, Justin Vernon has taken part in a variety of side projects, recording cameos for Poliça, Francis and the Lights, and of course, Kanye West. He has also released two albums: one with his electronic side-project Volcano Choir, and the other in collaboration with Florida rapper Astronautalis as Jason Feathers. He also started his own music festival in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
But the radio silence from the Bon Iver camp ended several months ago with the release of a short, cryptic YouTube video featuring binary codes, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Biblical imagery set to a snippet from lead single “22 (OVER S∞∞N).” As Vernon’s lifelong friend Trever Hagen explains in a short essay on the band’s website, the repeated use of the number 22 is a symbol that is very important to Justin. He explains how the number has been a recurring motif in his life on everything from freeway signs, to basketball jerseys, to bill totals. Logic vs. emotion and fate vs. coincidence are ideas that are mentioned frequently on the album.
One difference that is instantly noticeable between this and Bon Iver’s previous two releases is the music. Justin Vernon’s trademark acoustic guitar is, for the most part, absent from this album, with the song “29 #Strafford APTS” being the obvious exception. There is heavy usage of synthesizers, drum machines, and samples on every song. This collection is, for lack of a better term, all Peter Gabriel’d out. “33 ‘GOD’” even makes use of a sample of SIRI talking in the rhythm section. However, on a more subtle level, what is even more impressive here is the layered songwriting.
Bon Iver’s previous two releases were centered heavily around nostalgia and linking emotions to certain people or places. 22, A MILLION stands in stark contrast with previous releases in this sense. On the song “33 ‘GOD’” Vernon sings “when we leave this room, it’s gone” and “these will just be places to me now.” He seems set on not dwelling in the past, but moving forward and focusing more on the present moment; the overbearing threat of death and fear of mortality linger throughout the album. There’s a reason the pseudo-chorus of the opening track is “22, it might be over soon.” However, the solution of enjoying the present and living in the moment seems to become more persistent in the second half of the album. “The days have no numbers” is a line that is repeated frequently on the closing track, “00000 Million”.
At 2015’s Eau Claire Festival performance, the band’s first in three years, where they premiered many of the songs from 22, A MILLION, Vernon shared a moment of vulnerability with the crowd when he said, “The question I keep asking myself lately is if there’s anything greater than us… I don’t think there is, I think there’s just us.” On this album, Vernon struggles with finding his own purpose and questioning whether anything he does matters in a large, indifferent universe. He then emphasizes the power of living in the present, and what even a single individual person can do when they have drive and purpose.
22, A MILLION features Justin Vernon discovering meaning in himself instead of trying to find patterns in the world or looking for signs from God. The powerful songwriting and unique instrumentation cement Bon Iver as one of the most creative forces in the world of music today. It is also the origin of my new favorite word, “fuckified.” Maybe he’s been hanging out with Kanye too much.