Bon Iver’s sound is one that embodies the confused emotions that pepper our being. The kind of sound that would perfectly soundtrack a coming-of-age film: one where the lead character’s hands graze endless fields of corn from the back seat of a beat up car, the image cast with the hazy glow of the setting sun. It’s a romanticised vision, but that’s the kind of sentiment Bon Iver instills in us all.
When For Emma, Forever Ago appeared in our lives in 2007, the low-key simplicity was a refreshing counterpart to the scrappy, laddish character of the indie wave. There’s a reason why ‘Skinny Love’ launched a thousand cover versions. Everybody wants to experience the same kind of pure emotion as Justin Vernon, be it good, bad, or somewhere in between. That’s the beauty of Bon Iver: their music encapsulates so many mixed feelings that we all go through and have never quite managed to find a word for thus far.
Justin Vernon and his band have that special ability to not only describe our feelings that we either can’t express, or are too scared to express – they invite us to share their feelings too. Rather than the usual press release, Bon Iver’s new album was summed up with a quasi-biographical piece by Trever Hagen dating back to 2006. In it, Hagen explains how he, Vernon, and some of their closest friends spent their formative years discovering and creating their identities through shared experiences. “Through these musical experiences, we began to find and form our hearts collectively,” he wrote. “Motion and thoughts aligned. Collective goals formed piece by piece. This was how the dream began.”
It’s no recent phenomenon that we, as people, seek solace in knowing others share our sentiments, and, in the twentieth century, Bon Iver offer a home for our lost, searching souls, providing refuge in their guitar-laden, folksy sound and Vernon’s feather-soft vocals. Yet 22, A Million is something of a departure from this sound that bled through their first two albums – now, the introduction of intentionally thick auto-tuning and overt sound manipulation in particular shed new light on Bon Iver’s soft, gentle image.
‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ is a beautiful, simple creation, the dull background throb providing a clear runway for Bon Iver to play with vocal samples in a delightfully delicate way. A stark contrast, then, to the in parts aggressive nature of ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ – a chunky, pounding number that sees the distortion of Vernon’s voice reach new heights, meriting its comparison to the intensity of Kanye West’s later albums, as well as ‘715 – CRΣΣKS’. Meanwhile ’33 “GOD”’ feels like the long-lost brother to occasional collaborator James Blake’s ‘I Need a Forest Fire’ – both featuring choral undertones in Vernon’s vocals and the emphasis on strings; fitting given the track’s name and significance.
Religion crops up again in ‘666 ʇ’, but that’s not the only theme to surface in 22, A Million. Vernon’s grappling with success (following the success that came with For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver) can be felt throughout. Numbers, too, have a particular importance to the album, and to Justin Vernon himself – all of the track names feature numbers (along with unusual typography filled with symbols), with the number 22 said to have a significance throughout Justin’s life: “the reflection if ‘2’ is his identity bound up in duality.”
I could try to sum up this album in a neat, witty one-liner, but Trevor Hagen has the perfect closing segment: “Music, even in its most intimate moments, is a pathway between us all. It is the nuts and bolts of humanity as well as its totality. It is made sacred between people and in return makes those relationships sacred. It is the buoyant substance that we grab onto when the water rises above our heads. The answer has been here the entire time: just music, always.”
Buy 22, A Million here.