Bon Iver-22, A Million (2016, Jagjaguwar)
I first listened to the music of Bon Iver (the project fronted by Justin Vernon) when “Woods”(off 2009’s Blood Bank EP) was recommended to me on an “iTunes Essentials” playlist (do those even exist anymore?) that featured songs with vocoder and autotune. I was attracted to the song’s densely layered, otherworldly quality; it sounded like a choir of sad martians singing a round way out in a snowy forest. My parents bought me Bon Iver’s debut album, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, whose acoustic one-man-and-his-guitar stylings seemed completely different from “Woods.” I liked “Skinny Love,” (because who didn’t like that song), but shelved the rest of the album until years later. I eventually grew to appreciate it, along with Vernon’s 2011 follow-up album Bon Iver, Bon Iver. I then proceeded to forget about Bon Iver while I was in college. It barely registered when Vernon released some new songs in the fall of 2016, my senior year, but finally I decided to give them a listen. They sounded nothing like his first two albums, full of glitchy beats, processed vocals, and bursts of white noise. Once the album was released, I went through it, song-by-song on the Youtube mobile app, on a Greyhound from DC to State College, PA. The songs hit me like a ton of bricks; I was still trying to recover from returning to America that summer after 9 months in London, and the emotions and lyrics in some of the songs mirrored what I was thinking and feeling. I eventually got the CD as a gift that Christmas, and it now ranks among my favorite albums.
Bon Iver is often regarded as the archetypical “sensitive folkie” artist; a flannel-clad, bearded man who retreated to a Wisconsin hunting cabin to spend a melancholy winter recording frost-covered ballads about heartbreak and loneliness. While that description is technically correct, I think 22, A Million is a more accurate reflection of Vernon’s spirit as an artist. For Emma, Forever Ago, despite its spare acoustic instrumentation (a la Iron and Wine), is a strange, experimental album. Vernon’s falsetto is piercing and alien, his guitar playing sounds unusually brittle and his lyrics are cryptic and difficult to parse. In the context of just For Emma, Vernon may have come off as a folk singer who was a bit of an oddball, but looking back now, his debut plays more as “Avant Garde Dude Goes Acoustic.” It’s not a stretch to trace a line from the clattering, chaotic percussion of For Emma’s “The Wolves” to the jittery, thunder-in-a-can rumble of 22’s “10 (Death Breast)” or from “Flume”’s midsong interlude of disembodied voices and droning guitar strings to the floating, melancholy sprawl of “21 (Moon Water).” Side note: the song titles on this one are nutty; I honestly have no clue what they refer to.
The aspect of 22, A Million that stands out most immediately is the cloaking of Vernon’s vocals in layers of effects. For Emma fans had a lot to say about this warping of the heavenly voice we’ve all grown to love, a lot of it negative. The first noise you hear on the album is Vernon’s falsetto, looped and wordless, as it shakily drones its way out of the darkness; then overlaid by the pitched-up refrain “It might be over soon…soon.” A “happy” album this will not be. On many of 22’s songs, Vernon runs his voice through something called the “Messina,” invented by and named for Vernon’s sound engineer. I won’t pretend to understand how the Messina works, but it allows Vernon to use a keyboard to create vocal harmonies in real time. It sounds a bit like the vocoder effect that Imogen Heap uses on “Hide and Seek,” otherwise known as the “watcha say” song that Jason DeRulo sampled and was featured in a classic SNL sketch. “715 (Creeks)” uses the Messina to glorious effect. An a capella ballad in the vein of “Woods,” it sounds as if it were being sung by a mourning cyborg, its circuits shorting out so that high and low harmonies burst forth at moments of great emotion. During the chorus of “29 #Strafford APTS,” one of the more acoustic-ey songs on the album otherwise, Vernon’s voice sounds like a balloon filling with air and then being released to swirl around the room and deflate. As always, though, the raw emotion inherent in Vernon’s voice shines through, despite the layers of effects. The Messina’s sonic cloak turns him into a half-man, half-machine, desperately struggling to articulate itself in a time of uncertainty.
It’s clear that Bon Iver and Kanye West have been influencing each other back and forth for a while now (although I doubt Vernon has joined Kanye aboard the Trump train.) 22, A Million makes heavy use of vocal samples, much like early Kanye productions used to do. “33 (God)” contains the most masterful examples of sampling on this album; I also happen to think it is the best song that Bon Iver has ever recorded. The track is led by a bright piano motif that sounds like the rays of a winter sunrise, and is interspersed with bits and pieces, manipulated to various degrees, from songs by Scottish singer Paoli Nutini, old school country dude Jim Ed Brown, and Alabama soul singer and outsider artist Lonnie Holley. Vernon seamlessly incorporates these segments into the broader ebb and flow of the track, and tops things off by throwing in a massive breakbeat sampled from the soul group Cold Grits. The epic result does the song’s lofty title justice. Elsewhere, Vernon samples gospel singer Mahalia Jackson on “22 (Over Soon),” a chipmunk-ified Stevie Nicks on “10 (Death Breast),” and, in a quietly devastating moment, Irish singer Fionn Regan on the closing piano ballad “00000 Million.” The unmanipulated sample— Regan wearily singing the line “Because the days have no numbers…”— runs contrary to the album’s prodigious use of numbers in its track titles. Almost as if the entire album has been an attempt to conjure, through complex enumeration, a sense of order in a chaotic and anxiety-ridden life, and Vernon realizes on the final track that this is an impossible undertaking. At the same time, the sentiment comes off as hopeful; the pressure to make logical sense or rigid order out of the days of our lives being lifted.
The Regan sample on “00000 Million” sums up the feel of 22, A Million. The record is both triumphant and melancholy, placid and anguished, a mess of conflicting emotions delivered through layers of garbled, choked vocals. I’ve yet to hear anything like it (earlier James Blake is the closest comparison I can think of) and I doubt I ever will. If you’re a fan of For Emma, Forever Ago, you may not like this one immediately, but keep an open mind, and you’ll hear the same Justin Vernon shining through.