Album Review: Bon Iver—“22, A Million”

By Angelo Gio Mateo, Feature Photo via Consequence of Sound

22, A Million starts by warning us that it might be over soon. Clocking in at a total running time of just over 34 minutes, a five year wait for Bon Iver’s latest album is over and perhaps too soon. But within those 34 minutes is the culmination of over a decade of works by Justin Vernon. It’s also his best work yet.

It would be a mistake to simply say that the new album is an absolutely radical departure from the older Bon Iver records. Instead, it takes into totality the sonic characteristics of Vernon’s entire discography including his side projects (ex. Volcano Choir) and his collaborations (ex. Kanye West). For a 34-minute album, 22, A Million is a dense and cryptic musical work that demands interpretation and tests our sonic musical palate. Trying to impose meaning onto the album seems impossible. However, saying it is “difficult” would be evading the challenge that Vernon poses.

Let me offer one interpretation: If one theme can be teased out from the album, it’s the imagery of fragmented memories and a fleeting world. “It might be over soon” can be read as another way to say “sic transit gloria mundi” – “Thus passes the glory of the world.” You can envision the album as a collection of post-apocalyptic choral hymns: throughout the album, multilayered vocals are made to sound like choirs and when the album debuted at Eaux Claires, festival-goers were handed small hymnal-like booklets with the lyrics. In the world of 22, A Million, everyone has left Vernon behind: his friends, family, lovers and God himself. What’s left are painful recollections of past times.

On “715 – CR∑∑KS,” Vernon keeps singing, “I remember something” – as if he was finding it difficult to recall a painful past. He’s been “left here in the reeds” and is trying to escape but can’t. On “33 “God”,” Vernon sings about struggling to find God. In the most prominent moment of the track, a voice says, “We find God and religions too.” He invokes a Biblical verse in Psalm 22 when another deep voice cries, “Why are you so far from saving me?” You can envision a rainy thunderstorm night at the Ace Hotel that Vernon sings about, after the end of the world. “____45_____” sounds like an apocalyptic rendition of an old time gospel spiritual, with the call and response of the dueling saxophones and Vernon’s vocals singing, “Well I been carved in fire, well I been caught in fire.”


Album Cover for 22, A Million

22, A Million is Bon Iver’s personal “Book of Job.” In the Biblical story, God allows the devil to torment Job to test him. His wealth disappears, his children are killed and his health fails. Job questions his faith and challenges God to answer why He has forsaken him. In Job 30:20 and 27, he says, “I cry to you and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me… My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still; days of affliction come to meet me.” The concept of suffering has been a consistent theme throughout Bon Iver’s discography: on “Wolves Act 1 and 2” from For Emma, Forever Ago, he cries, “Someday my pain will mark you.” But on 22, A Million we are almost entirely confronted by his pain. His lamentations sound like Job’s as in “8 (circle)”: “Say nothing of my fable, no. What on earth is left to come? Who’s agonized and gnawed through it all?”

The more I listen to the album and attempt to understand it, the less I am able to grasp it.  But look past the esoteric song titles and arcane lyrics, past the jagged electronic textures and dark imagery and you’ll find extraordinary beauty in Bon Iver’s vulnerability. The album ends with the lines, “Cause the days have no numbers. Well it harms it harms me it harms, I’ll let it in.” While it might sound like the acceptance of the end of days, it’s also a call to just let the music hit you emotionally instead of rationalizing it. In that agony, you might find magnificence.



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