bon iver’s 22, a million | a review

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Bon Iver’s long-awaited third album, “22, A MILLION” dropped on Friday.  I’ve historically been a big fan of Bon Iver’s work and was very curious which direction Justin Vernon and the band would choose to go after a five year recording hiatus.  Vernon has been up to some pretty interesting creative endeavors of late:  appearing on Kanye West’s “Yeezus” album, launching the Eaux Claires Festival in his Wisconsin hometown, producing albums for the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Staves.

Facing self-proclaimed burnout after the instant fame and touring schedule with “For Emma, Forever Ago” and “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” Vernon said,

“It’s a thing about self- and mental discovery, and those are all important things. But it’s not 148-shows-over-a-year-and-a-half-important, though. It’s a machine, and it’s money, and you just get put on this indie rock cart, and it’s embarrassing.  I’m not trying to score again.  I’m trying to prove to myself it’s about the music you make.”

Lucky for us, Bon Iver does score again: big time.  I’m writing this review the day of the album’s release; partly to make a deadline, but mostly because if I give myself longer than a day or two to write, I will surely overthink it—and this is an album that can be easily overthought, but really shouldn’t be. I taught a voice lesson today and asked my student if he had listened to the album.  His response was, “Yeah, I don’t know if I get it—but I love it.  Do you get it?”  After a first listen the album comes across as deliciously noisy, experimental, transcendent. To my ear there are snippets of Frank Ocean, West, and certainly James Blake.  The soundscape is genius:  it oozes invention while still managing to be quintessentially Bon Iver.  This is what seals the deal for me—and is the mark of lasting creative sustainability.

Each song, complete with individual artwork, is highly symbolic—almost hieroglyphic and rich in numerology.  The tracks are packed, often dense with layer after layer of invention—rich, expansive invention, constantly mixing distorted and manipulated sounds with the natural ones we expect of the band.   2009’s “Woods” from “Blood Bank” gives birth to      _ _ _ _ 45 _ _ _ _  on this album, Vernon’s (and my) favorite track.  This track was first performed live at Eaux Claires 2016.

In a press conference at the Oxbow Hotel in Eau Claire, Vernon said the following:

The ’45’ song with Lewis, that’s my favorite. We made an instrument. Messina and Francis helped make this instrument, and everyone before that — [talk box innovator] Robert Troutman, who did the most amazing vocoding in the world. We all made an instrument together. And then me and Lewis, the instrument we were playing was only possible to play as two people, and it was just us making music as freely as humanly possible. When we made that recording, I played it for my friend Brad Cook, and he was like, ‘Just put that out. That is the best song you’ve ever made.’

This sound is fresh and previously unclaimed.

What grabs my curiosity and attention the most, though, is the open soul-search that tangles itself throughout the whole album.  Ideas of faith, prayer, consecration, God and eternity are laid out like a playground where nothing is off-limits.

The sixth track on the album, ballad, ‘‘666 Upsidedowncross,’’ gives us Vernon’s uncertain musing, ‘‘I don’t know the path.’’ The album booklet cites the anguished Psalm 22 — ‘‘Why are you so far from saving me?’’

‘‘33 ‘God’’’ was released 33 days before the general album release and is 3 minutes, 33 seconds long.  33 is also the age most agree upon as being Jesus Christ’s age at the time he was crucified.

Vernon names music as his religion: ‘‘For me from a very early age, music has been my religion. It’s been my way of understanding, it’s been my way of celebration, it’s been my way of contemplation.’’

–Christ-follower: how is our faith our way of understanding, of celebrating, of contemplating?  How does this spill over into the art we create?

contributed by Desiree Hassler

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