Resident Pop Theology music critic, Benjamin Griffin, offers a review of Bon Iver’s latest album, 22, A Million. More after the jump.
For all the rightful praise that Justin Vernon received for creating a heartbreakingly perfect break up album right out of the gate, not enough credit goes to the real accomplishment of that record and, really, every record of his since. While the myth and legend of that record was preciously romantic and almost unbearably perfect, locking himself away in a Wisconsin cabin for the winter to completely dive into the world of his own pain, the album did not so much produce a poetic monument to heartbreak lyrically so much as sonically. Sure, you might have experienced a skinny love or two in life, but every last one of us who have had our heart broken know intimately the way that the shimmering guitars of “Flume” have bounced off our solitary confinement and filled the room. And that is exactly what Bon Iver has always been, and always will be, the best at: sonic mastery of subject. With Vernon’s newest release, 22, A Million, he has found a level of sonically spiritual catharsis that’s almost too much at times.
For Emma, Forever Ago is the emptiness of self you feel when you lose a partner – all that faith and hope and love just sucked into the vacuum that seemingly surrounds you at all sides. You don’t have to be locked away in a cabin to feel that pain. But, then, rather than repeat himself by squeezing out another woeful folk meditation, Vernon did the smart thing and gave himself room to breathe. Triumphantly returning with a self-titled sophomore album, Bon Iver moved on to explore landscape rather than heartbreak. Titling each song for a place visited, real or imaginary, taking second tales and firsthand accounts, their sophomore album is an aural landscape in motion – moods and impressions outside of a window, still in their life but forever passing by.
Enough has been said about Vernon’s musical friendships – from Kanye to James Blake – but I don’t really think this is all that important. As influential as these figures might have been to the end product of the absolutely masterful 22, A Million, I think it’s best to consider what all Vernon has done in between. From the wild avant-pop of Volcano Choir to the face value rawk n’roll of The Shouting Matches, Vernon has been on the move from the start. A millennial with musical ADD, Vernon has branched and stretched in almost every way imaginable. So, when he finally returns to his core project it should be no surprise that the landscape in which he plays has grown. And, my goodness, the landscape on this album is nearly cosmic.
Described as “part love letter, part final resting place of two decades of searching for self-understanding like a religion,” 22, A Million almost feels like the end to a trilogy – from the heart, to the land, to the stars – where Bon Iver finds itself wrestling with themes of self-identity and spiritual connection. At once pointedly disarming and maddeningly abstruse, Vernon’s lyrics paint the picture of the mind both at odds and at peace with itself, a life with both its memories and its self-awareness. I wish I could tell you exactly what’s going on here, but I get the impression that so does Justin – and that really feels like the point here. Even the obnoxiously named song titles (“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” – for example) point towards that esoteric self-understanding that all of us possess, where a million tiny definitions, hidden musings, and inside jokes become the very voice with which we speak to, and about, ourselves.
But, again, the lyrics are only sort of the point – even fans know that a majority of the appeal lies with Vernon’s gorgeous falsetto croon. His voice is, at times, truly ethereal and floats over each note as a texture rather than a comment. So again, it’s all about the sound – the sonic beauty of what Bon Iver explores. Much like Bon Iver, Vernon here strays just a bit further from his rustic roots and inhabits a space somewhere just beyond organic but not quite fully electronic. Even when he does slide back to the naturalistic, it’s accented by layers of fragmented noise that rise and fade like meandering thoughts. His voice, at times modulated and distorted, sounds at once intimate and alien – especially on the album stand out “715 – CRΣΣKS” where Vernon seems to be beating an a capella praise song out of his chest. It is a powerful, haunting moment that immediately launches into the dizzying mystery of a single “33 ‘God.’”
I think we’re at a point in pop music where we can safely say genre is an outdated concept. I think we just say ‘mood.’ The mood here is transcendent, it is deeply intimate and esoteric but painfully common and broad. It is the too early sunrise where light fills your eyes like the air fills your lungs, it is the endless night drive of numb desperation that is met with the epiphany of simple observation, it is the hope that one can be at peace within oneself and with the silent stars. Yes, this is quite hyperbolic, but, like I said, Bon Iver has perfected the sonic landscape and with 22, A Million has given us quite a vast playground to explore. Bon Iver could very well call it quits after this, and it would be a perfect series of records, but I will always keep my eyes on where Vernon wanders to next.