Justin Vernon wrote and recorded Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, one winter while living alone in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods after hitting a low point in his life. The album earned both popular and critical acclaim, pushing Vernon into the music world spotlight. (Unfortunately, it also resulted in a number of bad YouTube covers of “Skinny Love.”) The sparse album explored the dread of isolation and the richness of solitude, a thematic vein that Bon Iver has continued to tap ever since.
Bon Iver’s second album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, set these themes, not in the pain of a specific moment, but instead, in pastoral images of place. The rural Midwest and American plains have rarely sounded so enchanting. The raw, folksy simplicity of For Emma, Forever Ago blossomed into lush instrumentation on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. It painted landscapes that created space in which listeners could explore their own memories through the music.
On first listen, 22, A Million sounds like a major departure from Bon Iver’s previous sounds and substance. Vernon’s voice, arguably the signature element of Bon Iver’s sound, is almost always processed. The lyrics are more cryptic and harder to decipher. Many of the songs are built on distorted synths and electronic drums. The sound is abrasive at points, especially when compared to Bon Iver, Bon Iver.It seems like Vernon has reached the end of his search for a neat, tidy bridge between himself and “the Other,” and resigned himself to a permanent unsettledness.
A more careful listen, though, reveals that 22, A Million fits right in amidst both previous Bon Iver albums and Vernon’s other projects. A few moments of auto-tune on For Emma, Forever Ago, as well as Vernon’s work on two Kanye West albums, foreshadowed the increased vocal processing. The distorted sounds, synths, and rhythms can be heard in Vernon’s work with Volcano Choir. The tracks “715 – CRΣΣKS” and “____45_____” draw on the a capella track “Woods” from Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP. The music on 22, A Million doesn’t feel angsty, but it is measured, and the lush sounds of Bon Iver, Bon Iver have been chopped and warped to create a more unsettled sound.
Just as Bon Iver’s sounds have evolved on 22, A Million, so has the perspective that raised questions of isolation and solitude on previous albums. In interviews, Vernon has spoken about the period of emotional and creative dryness following the release of Bon Iver, Bon Iver that led to this shift in perspective. 22, A Million emerged out of a “swirling context of transformation in Justin’s recent life,” as one of his collaborators puts it. Although this transformation has framed Bon Iver’s questions differently, their heart remains the same: How do we make sense of our relationship to ourselves? How do we make sense of our relationship to the rest of existence, i.e., everything that is not us?
In a New York Times interview, Vernon explains the album title: “Being 22 is me and then the last song being a million, which is this great elusive thing: like, what’s a million?” “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” begins the album with a sampled voice repeating the numbers “two, two,” ensuring that the listener doesn’t miss Vernon’s starting point, and ends with “00000 Million,” completing the circle. Vernon continues: “I was big into Taoism in college, and the paradox of duality, and how it’s always one thing and the other — you can never have one thing without the other.” The space bookended by these two songs reflects the space between Vernon and “the Other” and contains pieces of his search to connect the two.
Vernon’s notion of “the Other” is more than just other people, though. What Vernon describes as “this great elusive thing,” the aforementioned collaborator describes as “the infinite and endless, everything outside oneself that makes you who you are.” It’s the vast breadth and depth of existence that we feel, but find impossible to ascertain or articulate exactly.
On “29 #Strafford APTS” Vernon sings, “Oh, the multitude of the other/It always comes off the page,” which reminds me of the poet Christian Wiman’s words: “My God my bright abyss/into which all my longings will not go.” However we try to pin down this sense of the infinite — through religion, places, romance, or poetry — we will always come up short. These things, while offering us glimpses of the infinite, are not the thing itself. The only thing that will satisfy the chasm of the “bright abyss” is, paradoxically, the abyss itself.
It’s clear that Vernon feels the paradox of Wiman’s bright abyss. He quotes Psalm 22 on “33 God” singing, “Why are you so far from saving me?” Vernon’s collaborator echoes this feeling, describing the album as “part final resting place of two decades of searching for self-understanding like a religion. And the inner-resolution of maybe never finding that understanding.” In other words, it seems like Vernon has reached the end of his search for a neat, tidy bridge between himself and “the Other,” and resigned himself to a permanent unsettledness.
While Vernon might not use the word “God” to name the infinite, and probably wouldn’t use the framework of sin and redemption to talk about our world, I resonate with his resignation. As a Christian, feeling a permanent unsettledness in the world isn’t a surprise, but rather, the expectation (though it’s still a let down). The world is not as it ought to be. There’s a disconnect between “22” and “the million” that has no remedy until God makes all things new.
What we are left with are hints and whispers of eternity. Pieces of a broken mirror that seem to reflect something larger than we can imagine. Scenes in our life that carry a weight beyond themselves. Moments in relationships that echo a love that is nothing other than divine.
Justin Vernon magnificently pieces these fragments together, both sonically and lyrically, in 22, A Million in order to connect some of them for himself, and in turn for us. While listeners drawn in by the sparse folksiness of For Emma, Forever Ago or the lush landscapes of Bon Iver, Bon Iver might have to commit more effort with 22, A Million, it’s an effort well worth making.
A couple of years ago, I saw Justin Vernon perform with Volcano Choir. Walking back to our car, my friends and I passed Vernon smoking in an alley behind the theater. We debated for a minute whether to leave him alone but decided to say hello and thank him for his music. My friend told him how much For Emma, Forever Ago meant to her in the midst of a rough year. He took a long drag on his cigarette and replied, “You’re welcome, we’ve all been there. That’s why I made it,” as if we’d known each other for years.
In that moment, the chasm between “22” and “a million” was a little bit less than it was before. The fragments and disconnected stories that make up our lives were shared and there was a connection. There was a sacred recognition that, although on this side of the infinite we can only see the pieces, they point toward an unbroken whole — one day, they’ll be put together and made new. One day, to rework Vernon’s lyrics, “the multitude of the other” will remain on the page. But until then, we can only hope that Justin Vernon keeps making music for the sake of this shattered world.
Photo Credit: David Szymanski, used with permission