Music is a very difficult but rewarding form of communication. It poses two simple questions: what is and what is heard, creation versus interpretation. Occupying the space between the two has been a galvanizing yet understated troubadour, Justin Vernon, whose project evolved into an array of cinematic masterpieces forming scenes and feelings out of vaguely sculpted lines, tapping into a rich tapestry of imagery grounded in pastoral elements creating a unique brand of post-modern Americana. Utilizing objective references like geography and time in conjunction with subjective experience and emotion, Bon Iver builds songs of imprints and impressions with which the listener develops themes based on Vernon’s impeccable storylines. On 22, A Million, another dimension of sound adds to the already teeming canvas, advancing his work in a natural manner, fulfilling the cycle of experimentation stripping away the excess to lay himself bare before us once more.
To understand 22, A Million can be an arduous undertaking, one that requires the listener to look into the development process, art and inception of the album. Just as Vernon’s 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago was an escape, this too operates as a coping mechanism. But rather than dealing with separation from someone or something, Vernon was dealing with alienation from himself. While rewarded with abundant success following 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, this brought on the burden of expectation. Exhausted and worn, he announced he was likely done with the project and that it evolved into something beyond him. Yet what sparked a revival was what kiboshed it in the first place: Vernon himself.
As the opening line of "22 (OVER S∞∞N)" laments that “it might be over soon,” the "soon" is repeated in an altered form at a faster pace to mimic the pronunciation of 22, a representation of duality both within and without, the most prominent theme of the album. It’s a simple practice that was done without forethought, weighed down by exhaustion and apathy, but grew into a concept organically, becoming the development rather than being developed. It’s a cathartic cocoon, therapeutic in its growth into something beautiful. Driving the experience is lyricism built from sound and given meaning. There’s a fitting poetry to Vernon’s manipulation of vocals as he’s known to contort words to fit melodies, often creating his own to fill a void without an apt solution. However, such a simple act is what turns basic practices into something unique, bold and nomadic.
Numbers play an important role on 22, A Million, and while it’s easy to pass it off as poorly-pissed pretension, coupling the album with some interpretation and study gives meaning to the disorderly gobbledygook of song titles. On "715 – CRΣΣKS," the number references his native state of Wisconsin through its area code, taking us on a journey of first love and ensuing love loss. "33 "GOD"" alludes to the alleged age of Jesus when he died, while also playing into the same duality Vernon finds in 22. While cryptic in nature, the puzzle illuminates the subtleties lining the pumping veins bringing life to the songs, almost like a broadcasted dissection. So where is the mystery if the meaning is reiterated in lyrics, production and art?
In many ways, this album isn’t as ripe for interpretation as his past two releases, but it’s not the interpretation that is the focal point this time around. Meaning is purely subjective, but Vernon isn’t writing for us to observe and reflect to derive it. Rather, he revels in the similarities and dissimilarities between him and us, the million. It’s revelatory, breaking the fourth wall in addressing us, ensuring that the monologues fall upon active ears, hoping to breed a benevolent understanding of his anxieties, perhaps seeing them in ourselves as well. It’s not a novel concept, but it is the most thoroughly executed, done within an intricate intimacy, one that the listener must pick up on for Vernon to properly open up. Like the Rosetta Stone, dedicating time to look at the artwork makes 22, A Million become an illuminating study of self, identity, relationships and expectations.
There’s an animalistic aggression in gritty beats and static claps, an emotional meditation in soothing synth arrangements, and reverence in aptly applied samples, but these contrasts and contradictions are emboldened by the bravado of a man in a tearing trucker hat, an unkempt beard probably smelling from the spilled ash of the last cigarette or joint, an understated wool sweater, and pants wearing the stains of yesterday’s apathy. It’s so difficult to evaluate 22, A Million just for the music as it works in a new dimension, utilizing new technologies, designs, communications and relations to create a truly one-of-a-kind experience. Take time to enter Vernon’s world, a work of discerning, deep-delving beauty, maximizing its minimalism to create something ingenious yet simple, bold like a choral yell, yet as understated as a whimper into the shadows of solidarity. There’s power coming from a point of weakness and it’s a realism we should all see in ourselves, accepting anxiety and struggle to create something inspiring.
— Brendan Tuytel