Days away from one of the most important elections, nothing is certain. The whole campaign has left us empty, exhausted and angry. No matter who wins the only guarantee is uncertainty. Bon Iver (Justin Vernon) explores and embraces uncertainty. Completely deconstructing his sound.
22, A Million
by Bon Iver
Folk guitars are buried under haunting tape loops, obscure gospel samples, and synths that recall early 80s Manchester. Vernon retains the pop elements that have endeared him to so many. A record that deals with the void left after the “Gold Rush”; that puzzling void that one thinks should have been filled by a career and success. Vernon digs deep into the abyss bordering on insufferable. Just when one thinks the Millennial Charlie Brown and Pitchfork darling are about to moan about privilege, he stops himself with brutal self-assessment. He is full of guilt, mourns the missed opportunities and self-destructive behavior of his twenties. 22, A Million is a marvel worth exploring.
Justin Vernon took the Grammy stage disheveled, awkward, stunned, and annoyed. He picked up his award and delivered a cringe worthy speech that confirmed all the negative connotations associated with millennials. He was every “Mad Lib” adjective that best describes a millennial. Proper “Rock Star” or “Real Artist” etiquette is to shun such gatherings. (The Beatles collected their Oscar for “Let It Be” via mail.) Why he showed up? No one knows. The most confused was Vernon. The truth is this: Just Vernon did not set out to be one of the best artists of his generation. No one, not even he imagined he would be at the place he finds himself. He retreated from it all. He even hinted that he might retire. He just wanted to make music, a task much harder when the world is watching.
He was hailed as a voice of his generation. His mythical polarizing hyperbolic backstory is at this point gospel. Boy loses girl, boy heads to cabin, boy makes break up record, releases the music with backstory and then Pitchfork turns boy into a Indie king. It would all be that simple if it were not for the music. Make no mistake, love him or loathe him, those two records are brilliant regardless of the backstory of how they came to be. The songs are well-crafted pop gems that will be covered by many for years to come. Vernon has a gift for melodies and arrangements. How special is his talent? Kanye The Life of Pablo West adores him. They have quite a kinship due to a unique moment in their careers. Both guys have the world and are bored. Much like The Life of Pablo, 22 A Million is filled with buried secrets that revel themselves with each listen.
I have always felt Vernon is a producer, not a performer.
22 A Million greatest feat is the morphing of his sound towards a new direction without losing his light. The folk ambience is there but nowhere near what he has accustomed us to. I have always felt Vernon is a producer, not a performer. He is a producer who finds solace in the studio. He is a wizard behind the boards who takes risks by foregoing commercial prospects for the sake of art. One look at the album artwork is proof for even the most cynical to see how true his intent to shun the spotlight and adoration. The artwork features obscure symbols, cut up images and occult references. The songs are meant to be heard in full as a collective. Picking out a song would be a grave injustice. This is coming from a music lover so I take full ownership over that overreaction. I come from a school of thought if an artist takes the time to deliver a complete vision, then proper playback should be in order. Vernon wiped his canvas clean and painstakingly took full complete songs apart for a more organic feel. That ethos makes the electronics and synthesizers feel spiritual.
There are familiar themes of loss, failed relationships, broken promises, and regret. Fans of his previous musings will have plenty to cherish and enjoy. Sonically I cannot overstate how radical the musical shift is. Vernon has found a sound that is more isolated than any cabin. That is saying something. 22 Million is a baby brother to Radiohead’s shape shifter Kid A. If Vernon was uncomfortable with all the adoration before 22 A Million, he better prepare for further adulation. Personally listening to this record provided space from the election madness. God help us if Trump wins.
I hope one thing occurs: I hope Vernon accepts that there is no shame in enjoying your path. Especially when your path provides light in times of uncertainty.