Bon Iver ’22, A Million’ – Review

4 Oct

We have always connected Bon Iver (sort of band, sort of solo project of Justin Vernon) to a sense of place. Initially, we associated it with the log cabin in Wisconsin, where a young Justin Vernon decamped after having his heart broken. Those wistful, folky songs sounded like being alone over winter in the middle of a mid west America. His second album featured a landscape painting on the cover and the song titles each referenced a different location. Now, everything about new record ’22, A Million’ dislocates Bon Iver from any sense of a physical place. Any inkling of the picturesque or the pastoral has disappeared, replaced by an abstract feeling of harsh, modern insecurity and instability. It sounds utterly separated, uncertain and adventurous; because of that, it is very 2016.

‘For Emma, Forever ago’ fEly, in many ways, like an album that could have been recorded at any point over the past fifty years. ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ had a slightly more modern aesthetic but it certainly didn’t personify the sound of the 21st century. There is no mistaking that ’22, A Million’ is a contemporary record in every way. In its discordance it sounds like a necessarily modern album. We hear it in the fragmented soundscapes, the array of samples and loops, the distorted, wild beats, the smirking strings and horns, the abstract lyrical thoughts that never build up steam before moving on to the next subject and the disregard for clarity and directness. In a world where we have our eyes constantly scanning and our fingers and thumbs constantly swiping, tapping and pushing, this is music that speaks to our contemporary sensibility.

We have never been more connected yet in many ways we have never felt more alone. It’s one of the great ironies of the social media generation. Vernon seems to thrive off isolation, which makes him the perfect voice for our times. Last year he had his heart broken (again) and took himself abroad to be alone. This involved relocating to a Greek island, off-season, where he was cut off from society and technology. But where isolation and heartbreak evidently manifested themselves in the sound and songs of ‘For Emma’ (man alone with an acoustic guitar singing in a matter of fact tone about having his heart torn apart), this time the disquiet presented itself in more ambiguous ways. His discomfort seems less rooted in a particular, identifiable thing and is more existential and philosophical. The pivotal line of the opening song is “it might be over soon”, and the line serves as a mantra and motivation. This is his most daring album by a long shot. He is questioning and searching for answers to the big questions. It’s musically all over the map and lyrically just as Changeable.

Vernon is still a man unpacking the past; picking apart memories and dreams to dissect universal truths. He doesn’t give you any narratives to hang on to. Only ‘715’ has any sense of a story, and even there it’s vague. He remembers a romantic night by a creek – a memory he worries won’t mean anything one day. It’s a song about struggling to move on from the past, whilst worrying about a time when that past no longer carries the same sentimental importance. It ends with an imperative – ‘turn around now/you’re my A Team’. It’s about as direct as he gets.

Existential fear guides Bon Iver throughout the album, but never as clearly on ‘715’. Elsewhere he recalls ‘Sharing smoke In the stair up off the hot car lot’ – a gripping opening line to one song that is followed by an increasingly slippery series of oblique images and ideas, stacking up to…who knows what exactly. Vernon’s increasingly experimental strain of lyricism is undoubtedly frustrating to some degree – the deliberately provocative grammar and aversion to narrative devices makes it a difficult record to get a grip on. But no matter how obtuse and difficult the music can be, it still carries an emotional power that transcends all obstacles.

‘Re Stacks’, the last track on ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, offered poetic resolution and a sense of hope. ‘This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization/It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away/Your love will be safe with me.’ Hardly a definitive ‘it’s all going to be ok’ kind of statement by any means, but certainly a lot more concrete than anything we find on ’22, A Million’s’ closer. Instead we are left with the refrain of ‘If it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in’. It’s acceptance of a sort – vague on paper but positively an affirmation when delivered by Justin Vernon’s clear cut voice. The song may not be as pretty, as raw or direct as ‘Re Stacks’ but the message is largely the same. The world is changing and there is a lot more noise to cut through. Bon Iver will continue to adapt and evolve but even as he does so, some things remain consistently vital – like the power of melody and the human voice. On the surface ’22, a Million’ is a departure from the sound that catapulted Bon Iver to indie superstardom, but it really isn’t all that different at its core: beautiful, honest and thoroughly ambitious.

8.5/10

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