Bon Iver's Esoteric Digital Daydream: 22, A Million / by Sam Abelow

Artwork for "22, A Million" by Bon Iver

Rating: 9.5/10

Bon Iver’s Esoteric Digital Daydream: 22, A Million

As the lead songwriter of Bon Iver, we hear Justin Vernon’s folky disposition rendered through a deranged digital filter on the band’s new album “22, A Million.” It’s like we put on a broken VR headset and looking at the British Isles. The glitches throughout this record make us wonder if the streaming service’s buffering was off.

A listen through the full-length of this project is like an LSD or DMT trip, which pushes one’s brain to the furthest extent of it’s capacities. Like a toaster oven at the brink, it nearly sets us on fire, before returning back to serenity. This album is a wonderful challenge. Having completed the journey we are a bit rattled, but also, much like a roller coaster that was terrifying while on board, we are eager for more.

Forever Ago, to Now

Justin Vernon spontaneously materialized, instantly finding a place in the playlists of American and European listeners in 2007, with the release of his album “For Emma, Forever Ago.” Heart wrenching and vulnerable, stripped down and timeless, that first album proved original enough for hipsters and accessible enough for soccer moms.

The mythology around Bon Iver began with that first album: he had broken up with his girlfriend and his band, contracted a serious illness, recovered and retreated to isolation in the woods of Wisconsin. There he hunted for his food and stayed in his father’s cabin.

It took another four years before Bon Iver would release a second album, for which he won Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album. The self-titled follow-up, which garnered such recognition, was a profound reformation of his original statement. For this, he introduced layers of drums, horns, synths and vocal effects.

Now, with “22, A Million,” Vernon seeks to further distance himself from the mythology surrounding his woodsy persona. This new album stands as an amalgamation of influences and collaborations that have manifested in the five years it took to germinate.

Vernon’s Musical Library

Essential to understanding Bon Iver’s “22, A Million,” is Vernon’s collaboration with Kanye West.

On the masterpiece “My Dark Twisted Fantasy,” Kanye West featured Bon Iver as a vocalist. It seems that the startling emotional impact on their song "Lost in the Woods" has had a lasting impression on Vernon’s sensibilities.

The rap icon has recently moved towards impulsive attempts at minimalism and progressiveness in composition and arrangement. Kanye’s last two albums have a palette of distorted drums and auto-tuned hooks, as well as punchy, crispy vocals. These aesthetics are imbued throughout Vernon’s new work.

Other hip hop artists such as Young Thug, who emphasize the deranged use of auto-tune and sloppy lyrical articulation act like second-hand smoke in this new cloud of musical innovation.

Earlier this year Bon Iver appeared on a song with modernist producer and singer James Blake. Their collaboration was typical of Blake’s eery synth atmospheres and blippy drums.

Vernon manages to take these contemporary influences and imbue them with the soul of his earlier work: gospel and folk. There are sections of improvised horns, reminiscent of experiments in modal jazz — a spacious and open sound developed by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. “In 22, A Million,” the combination of these modern aesthetics, with the traditional, spiritual, human sounds and a band with the absolute prowess of Paul Simon’s studio rats, has created something transcendent.

Alchemical Transformation

In the era of shuffling through Spotify, or Top 10 Singles on iTunes, this album challenges listeners to close the door and shut the blinds. It encourages us to allow our minds to be mangled and transported by a strange set of sounds, which, like the esoteric album art, is bizarre and magical.

This album is reminiscent of classical suites, operas and symphonies, which were often narrative. But rather than draw upon a Greek tragedy or pastoral drama, “22, A Million” is a musical representation of the inner experience of self-excavation and transformation. This album is an account of his introverted, solitary journeys, which are cloaked and remain mysterious.

Prior to release of this project Bon Iver periodically uploaded images to their Instagram page, which were full of esoteric symbols. These were indications of some fascination with the Masonic tradition, Hermetic philosophy and the ancient alchemical processes analyzed and modernized by psychologist Carl Jung. 

Throughout the majority of the album, Vernon’s words remain unclear; he might as well be speaking Swahili. Early tracks like “10 d E A T b R E a s T” are so mangled and distorted, both vocally and instrumentally, that we can only fall deep into the dream-like ambiguity and let it wash over us.

A few tracks in, “715 - Creeks” filters an acapella gospel vocal through a vocoder machine, which is pushed to the brink. Any coherent idea remains obtuse and yet we are elevated, then toppled by the intensity.

Carl Jung uncovered the experiences of medieval alchemists. The parallel between the ancient wisdom, Jung’s modernization and “22, A Million” are significant. In this album, Vernon delves into his inner world, through a sort of artistic ritual, where terrifying, overwhelming recollections of life splinter across a fractured psychic landscape. The images are fleeting, yet powerful.

On many cuts, it is unclear if Vernon speaking from his own life or, like Van Morrison in “Astral Weeks,” narrating past lives and touching on the varieties and nuances of human experience. Vernon sings on “33 God”: “Here in this room, this narrow room where life began, when we were young last night” But, generally, unlike Morrison, even when actually audible, Vernon is completely abstract, vague and yet filled with emotion.

At points, like on “21 Moon,” the music becomes completely devoid of conventional form. The disjointed ambience and garbling saxophone reads of psychological dissonance — a confrontation with inner darkness, or the disturbing influences of global problems too troublesome for our ape-brains to handle.

From there, the computerized vocals diminish and he can be heard more clearly. The dramatic, demented blips of chirpy digitized distortion fall away.

“8 (circle)” brings resolution. Eight is a number of completion in numerology and the circle is considered to the archetype of wholeness in Jungian psychology — a symbol of the transcendent self. This tends to be one of the more pleasing songs on the project. A guitar picks against the ethereal pads of synths, with subdued horns, while Vernon can be heard with full clarity, reminiscent of his beginnings with Emma.

In the final track “0000 Million” the effects have all been stripped away. He sings in a wooden room: “A word about Gnosis: it ain't gonna buy the groceries”; a sample injects: “The days have no numbers”; he resolves to say, “If it's harmed, it's harmed me, it'll harm, I let it in.”

In fragments, Vernon intimates that he has returned. After all, as is known in esoteric traditions: when the spirit soars, in search of cosmic insight, it must return. 

The relative infinitude of existence makes our days arbitrary; the everyday reality of the human condition begets wounds and inevitable hardship. Vernon says, “Let it all in.”

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