When we first met Justin Vernon in 2007, he had just escaped isolation. His debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007), was recorded in his father’s hunting cabin outside of Medford, Wis., where he stayed for three months to reflect on his newfound heartbreak, loneliness and fight against mononucleosis. Such solitude offered Vernon the experimental environment to channel his energy toward his vocal timbre and layering falsettos, and the result was an intimate, honest and eerie record.
With the release of For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver became an emblem for teenage angst (think: the emotional weight of the hipster Tumblr community circa 2010). I am hard-pressed to remember a moment as intimate and heavy as chanting the lyrics to “Skinny Love” with my best friend September 2011, just months after his sophomore album Bon Iver, Bon Iver was released. Questions about love, heartbreak and loss are relevant to any 10th grader grappling with what it means to think of oneself in terms of others, and Bon Iver had the answers.
For Emma, Forever Ago is grounded in its familiarity — accessible through its forlorn, universal themes. Bon Iver, Bon Iver soars just above that, located somewhere in the invincible summertime stratosphere where the horns and saxophones render the days long. And now, 22, A Million exists somewhere high up in the mesosphere. It’s barely accessible. Listening to it is similar to reading a David Foster Wallace novel — the lyrics are like highly stylized, metamodernist prose and the track titles (which present some sort of numerical relationships or code) are like footnotes. Listeners must sift through 22, A Million’s ambiguous themes and distilled sounds if they want to interpret it. It’s not easy listening, but it’s worth the labor it demands.
The opening track, “22 (OVER SooN)” repeats the lyric “it might be over soon,” a daunting reminder of life’s transience and, subsequently, the anxious foundation wherein the rest of the album resides. At its core, 22, A Million grapples with the complexity and confusion of mortality and faith. The fundamental religious question is best exemplified by the quotation marks in the title of “33 ‘God.’” Throughout the song, Vernon intercuts and layers elements of other songs, including Paolo Nutini’s “Iron Sky” and Jim Ed Brown’s “Morning.” In doing this, he establishes the disjointed sound that riddles the rest of the record.
“715 — Creeks” is the closest Bon Iver has gotten to acoustic, and it is reminiscent of his work on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Vernon employs the Messina throughout the album, a sound device (named after its engineer, Chris Messina) that harmonizes voices and instruments in real-time. But it is most jarring in this song, in which Vernon’s voice throbs against the Messina. The song takes on a turbulent sound, ending with the startling command: “God damn, turn around now, you’re my A-team.”
Listening to “#29 Strafford APTS,” which comes exactly midway through the album, feels like taking a much-needed breath — a breath filled with release and transcendence. “There ain’t no meaning anymore,” Vernon sings in the second verse, his voice raw and untreated. The song retreats to the Bon Iver we used to know — he relies on acoustic guitar and piano, rather than synthesizers. It’s about as easy-listening as Bon Iver gets on 22, A Million, and it’s one of the strongest.
The weakest points of the album — “10 Deatbreast” and “___45___” — are unaccommodating to the average listener. They sound more like layered, muddled sounds than orchestrated songs. It’s easy to get lost in the trenches of pulsing synthesizers and electronic sound effects and, quite frankly, tempting to skip to the next track.
It’s “8 (circle)” that I keep returning to every time I open the album’s tracklist. Its lyrics are tender and tangible — “not sure what forgiveness is” — but the song, as a whole, still manages to strike the sonic complexity of the rest of the album.
With “Re: Stacks” from For Emma, “Beth/Rest” from Bon Iver, Bon Iver and now “00000 Million” from 22, A Million, it’s evident that Bon Iver places his strongest songs at the end.
“Well it harms, it harms me, it harms, I’ll let it in,” he repeats — greeting the darkest moments of the days that have “no numbers.” It’s an hackneyed trope — that there is light in the dark, beauty in the mundane, pleasure in pain, etc. Listening to it is a chilling reminder that we need to do more than just accept hardship. We need to welcome it.
Bon Iver is French for “good winter,” and for Vernon, it seems as though winter’s greatest companion, hibernation, is essential. It is only through extended periods of slowing down and dormancy that his creative process can thrive. It is only through periods of intense religious questioning that he can provide spiritual answers. And as evident on 22, A Million, it is only through layered disjointed sounds that he can connect with his listeners.
It’s probable that we won’t hear from Bon Iver for a while — Vernon can only take long tours of sweaty venues for so long until his body temperature needs to drop again.
But for him — and for us — the winter is good.