[on first hearing the “extended” pre-release singles]
Bit short, aren’t they?
The music Bon Iver makes is undeniably pretty, and at first that is all I can hear: the prettiness. Everything here is mixed perfectly, and sounds gorgeous on the ears. From the moment the guitar first comes in on ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, like sudden cool water on a hot day, the music is lush and twinkling and brightly melodic.
Yet the narrative seems to be, swirling around the internet, that this is a radical new sound for the Bon Iver project, that this music is somehow challenging and difficult. “Not since Kid A has an album so superb pushed away and pulled closer its audience, simultaneously and with such aplomb,” says Pretty Much Amazing. “22, A Million captures personal crisis and resolution better than any record this century,” says The Line of Best Fit.
How to square this absurd hyperbole with how pretty it all sounds? Does this music really feel all that challenging? The songs, granted, take non-linear paths through various different fragments – but then, this is nothing all that new. There are vocal effects and synthesisers – again, nothing all that ‘out there’. And I can’t hear, at first, past all the pretty noise of the music, and all the blabbering hyperbolic noise of the internet; I can’t hear how, underneath all that, this is an interesting record, this is a challenging record, though not in the ways everyone thinks it is.
[on the way to the pub with a friend]
He says to me, what do you think of the new Bon Iver record, and I say oh, oh it’s really underwhelming isn’t it, and he says yeah, and I say I was just bored listening to it, and he says, oh God, by the end I just wanted it to be over already, and I say I know, right, and he says it’s funny, it’s so short but it feels so long, because there’s just no variation, and I say that was my experience exactly, I couldn’t believe how long it felt, it just went on and on, like the end of House of Flying Daggers where the woman keeps dying and then coming back to life just to die again, and I was like just kill me now already.
[on Bon Iver and Coldplay]
Take Viva la Vida, an album which borrows elements from a range of more interesting, more challenging music – My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead, The Velvet Underground – and translates them into a pop context, makes them accessible for a broader audience of people who maybe (shock! horror!) haven’t heard My Bloody Valentine or Radiohead or the Velvet Underground before. Is that an appropriate touchstone here? On 22, Bon Iver combinine a number of elements from recent underground music – the aggressive textures of experimental hip hop, the warped structures of witch house and vaporwave – and bubble them down into something that sounds really nice and melodic, that functions as incredibly pretty sonic wallpaper. And there’s a place for that. It’s not inherently bad. But it’s not earth-shattering.
[on the attack]
I want to like it, but I can’t get past those clunky, noun-dense lyrics, words that feel like they’re trying really hard to be meaningful and failing. It’s as though Vernon’s teenage diary-scrawls of Ashbery-lite are somehow more interesting than anyone else’s, and deserve to be carefully preserved through flashy lyric videos and Genius annotations.
And I can’t get, either, past those vocals, the way he sings so seriously, which only heightens how silly the lyrics sound. It hardly makes a difference whether he’s piling on the vocoders or singing nakedly, it all sounds so incredibly earnest. But earnest to what end? What are we supposed to make of this music? What is it supposed to mean?
And I can’t get, either, past those stupid, pretnentious track titles, with their hashtags, and their irregular numbering, and their random capitalisations, and their ∞s and ʇs and ∑s and ◊s.
And I can’t get, either, past how unstructured and sloppy everything is, how little thought seems to have gone into the sequencing, how under-baked the ideas feel, how little the songs seem to build in any meaningful way.
And I can’t help feeling, at the end of my first couple of listens, that it’s all a load of insufferable, nonsensical shit. It’s pretty shit, no doubt, but it’s still pretty shit.
[on the cover]
Symbols dissolved of their power, patterning the black wallpaper, thrown together as though they all basically meant the same thing.
[on other versions of this record that might have existed]
A more experimental 22, with more cracked, fractured instrumental backdrops, glitches, hiccups, detritus, digital coughs. A longer, wilder 22, sprawling out to a symbolic 22 tracks, covering even more stylistic ground. A softer, more pastoral 22, without all the digital manipulations, without all the crazy track titles, without the judder of ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ breaking the quiet aura. A more varied, pacier 22, with more tracks like ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ bringing up the tempo in the back half.
Would any of these albums be ‘better’? Would any of these albums be more ‘interesting’?
[on a train]
I’m on a train on the way to visit my future parents-in-law, half an hour left of the journey, and I find myself scrolling through my little screen, looking for something short enough to listen to, when I find the Bon Iver record, downloaded for ‘offline listening’ from a streaming service. I’d forgotten it was there. I hadn’t planned to listen to it again – I thought I’d made up my mind on it. But on the cramped and noisy train it feels just right: loud and processed enough to be heard above the carriage’s murmur, but quiet and calming enough not to stress me out any more. (The smallest bowl of porridge.)
That first track really is very pretty, isn’t it? But it’s also more than pretty, I think. It’s sad. It’s really fucking sad. It’s about time and how everything can suddenly end without warning. It’s about insecurity and the feeling of trying to connect with someone – to ‘speak into their silence’.
And then, shudder, we’re suddenly at ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’, and that production really is very nice, isn’t it? But it’s also more than nice, I think. It’s restless and feverish (“fever rest“, he keeps calling for) and then it shifts and opens up a little space into which he sings and then it crashes back in and it “wraps me up“.
And then it’s ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’ and it’s not just a parody of ‘Woods’ anymore, it’s its whole own thing, and the odd harmonies stack up amongst all these lovely, tiny silences, and the line ‘turn around you’re my 18’ is inexplicably moving.
And then it’s ‘33 “GOD”’, which has far more going on in it than I remember, and again it’s the silences that get to me, or the near-silences, the way they’re created by distorting the fabric of the song, like the unexpected pocket into which Fionn Regan sings “find God, and re-li-gi-on”.
And then, yes, it maybe loses its way a little from here, the sequencing goes all a bit weird, and the tempo doesn’t seem to vary, though the songs are still much better than I remember them, and still there are these little silences, these little pockets, which burst through the songs and are stirringly beautiful, and I think why didn’t I hear these before? Is this even the same album?
All three Bon Iver albums have a comma in the title, and in each case it acts to contrast something small against something large. Here we have 22 next to A Million. The use of numerals for the former emphasises it as a finite and specific amount. The use of words for the latter makes it seem comparatively unspecific, tossed off – a million years old, a million miles away, a million times. It seems really to mean ‘infinite’, or ‘uncountable’. (“The days have no numbers…”). It’s the same pattern as his first album: For Emma (a specific person is addressed), Forever Ago (an infinite time ago). Placed between them, the second album – Bon Iver, Bon Iver – takes on the same pattern. Reading it through the album’s theme of place, we read it as: city, state. Or perhaps, reading it in the wake of the previous album’s origin story being endlessly retold, as: Bon Iver (the person), Bon Iver (the myth).
[on the stroke of midnight]
Or maybe a few minutes after. I can’t sleep. I put on the record again, only this time I start from track five, from where it gets all quiet and samey. The gentle guitars of ‘29 #Strafford APTS’ sound like the old, cabin-dwelling Bon Iver, only the surface texture is different, like we’re listening through a wiretap in the room. Without the comparatively brazen opening four songs, ‘666 ʇ’ doesn’t feel like a ballad but a surge, its drums standing out more in the mix, its climax more apparent. And then the last four tracks alternate between genuinely strange, almost abstract numbers (‘21 M◊◊N WATER’ and ‘____45_____’) and two songs that feel like album closers. The first, ‘8 (circle)’, is a cousin of ‘Beth/Rest’; the second, ‘00000 Million’, the actual closer, is an evolution of it. It is also a refutation of the numerology that has haunted the rest of the album, and a very moving contrast between musical warmth and lyrical coldness: “if it harms me, it harms me, it’ll harm me, I let it in“.
Wow. These songs are crushing. They are mesmerising. Where did they come from?
[on the fifth, sixth, seventh listen…]
And on until the listens are uncountable, until they blur into one another, until they “have no numbers”, at which point we are beyond reactions or presumptions and into actual hearing.
[on the album’s structure]
There is a kind of addictive quality to its shortness and its incompleteness, like a puzzle you keep wanting to go back to, to try and piece it together, to crack its code, though the conclusion of this album, if it has one, is surely that not all codes can be cracked.
The repeated ‘soon, soon’ sounds like ‘two, two’, that is, 22.
The sides of two five-facing dice add up to 10, which is also binary for 2.
The area code of Central/North Wisconsin is 715.
In 3 minutes and 33 seconds you can listen to ‘33’ which is also the age Jesus died.
29 is a mystery.
The number of the devil is 666.
The number of God is 777, three sevens, which when multiplied together make ‘21’.
‘8’ is eighth is two circles is infinity on its side.
45 is one plus two plus three plus four plus five plus six plus seven plus eight plus nine and ‘45’ is ninth and nine is four plus five, is ‘____’ plus ‘_____’.
When the number 10 is placed at the beginning of the tenth song, ‘00000 Million’, it reads 1,000,000, that is: ‘a million’.
None of this tells us anything. Or it tells us everything.
[on and on]
Why do we change our minds about things? What’s different about this record now than when I was ranting to my friend at the pub? Did I really compare this to Coldplay?
[on my ears it’s landing]
It is as though the music I am hearing now is actually different than the music I was hearing before…
Which suggests that what we hear is completely subjective…
Like when you listen to something with someone else in the room, and you hear it through their ears…
Or you cover your ears with your hands, and it sounds like it’s underwater…
It lands on my ears and it wriggles around and it burrows in…
[on marks and symbols]
A review, like a work of art, is a kind of mark-making – the impression made on the reviewer is remade on the object from which the impression came. But the work does not mark itself – the mark is made possible only by the subjective and arbitrary circumstance of the reviewer. The mark therefore reveals something of the reviewer. The reviewer’s fingerprints are left smudgily on the work. The reviewer is a kid with a new notebook, scrawling doodles on the front cover.
A symbol is a kind of mark, too, but one that behaves differently from the mark-making of the individual artist or reviewer. A symbol is a collaborative space of collaborative meaning. Using a symbol, we inhabit it temporarily, participate in it, and then leave it. The symbol is not less arbitrary, necessarily, than the mark, but it is less circumstantial, relying instead on repeated circumstance, repeated use, through which it accrues its meanings. In some sense, then, it does mark itself, in that it contains all of its impressions and implications within itself, rather than in the moment of its use (that is, the temporary moment of impression, the interaction between the marker and the marked).
In 22, A Million, though, symbols behave like the personal marks of the artist. Its cover is a kid’s new notebook, scrawled upon, a treasure trove of personal mythologies. “Sixes hang in the door”, the occult made into mere decoration. Crucifix and crescent, trefoil and triskelion, quincunx and caduceus, ankh and emoji: they all become deposits of personal memories and associations. They mean no less and no more than “fuckified”.
There have been times listening to this I’ve been momentarily convinced it’s the best record I’ve heard in years. But still it is easier to say why I didn’t like it initially than it is to say why I do now. It is easier to rant than it is to praise, even playing devil’s advocate.
Good art reduces us to blathering, blabbering wrecks.
“What is it supposed to mean?” I cried.
I might as well oink or meow or quack or twit-twoo. Sooon. Twooo.
[on the feeling that whatever is being grasped at here, in this album, in this review, it is always just out of reach, always just on the tip of the tongue, clutched at but never quite held, yearned for but never quite…]
[on the infinite]
Every moment is finite, counted, but is, within itself, infinite.
[a million questions]
Does this music disappear on impact? Does it sound better in my imagination or in my headphones? Do I even like this? What does “fuckified” actually mean? What direction could this project possibly go from here? Why is the number 22 so important to Justin Vernon? Why is the number 256 so important to me? What colour is the bottom of the ocean? What would this sound like at a funeral? When did people discover clouds are actually made of water? Why is the moon associated with witchcraft? Do religions have any truth to them, or are they just empty rituals? Is it better to plan things out or be spontaneous? If you played this record in the woods and only Kanye was around to hear it, would he make some sweet ass beats out of it? Are coincidences meaningful? How do they make cornflakes? What is the history of the symbol of the ouroboros? How many atoms are there in the universe? Should I keep trying to understand? Should I stop?