It has been ten years since Justin Vernon isolated himself in a Wisconsin cabin after his band and girlfriend abandoned him. It has been nine years since Vernon gave his friends cardboard-bound copies of the raw musical heartache he recorded during his Kaczynski-esque winter in that cabin. It has been eight years since a record label discovered and re-released Vernon’s album, titled For Emma, Forever Ago, thrusting his band Bon Iver into the limelight. It has been five years since Vernon debuted his ethereal and polished follow-up album Bon Iver, Bon Iver, garnering critical acclaim and a Grammy. And it has been four years since Vernon shocked fans with the announcement that he was “turning off the faucet” of Bon Iver.
However, on September 30, Vernon turned “the faucet” back on with the release of Bon Iver’s third album: 22, A Million. It would be preposterous to say that the Justin Vernon who found inspiration in isolation ten years ago is the same Justin Vernon who wrote 22, A Million. In fact, Vernon recorded the first line of his new album in the middle of a nervous breakdown during a failed attempt to replicate the creative method of his cabin retreat. After a harrowingly lonely venture to Greece, Vernon returned home distraught and unable to speak, not with an album, but with an eleven-second recording of his voice musing, “it might be over soon.”
Vernon crafted an album around this thought with a focus on the fragility of human life and each person’s relative insignificance in the world. Throughout 22, A Million, Vernon utilizes numbers and other symbols to communicate these themes, including in the album’s title. His close friend Trever Hagen said, “22 stands for Justin. The number’s recurrence in his life has become a meaningful pattern through encounter and recognition. A million is the rest of the world: the millions of people who we will never know, the infinite and endless, everything outside one’s self that makes you who you are.”
In addition to his new ideology, Vernon took a different approach to music. “I don’t find inspiration by just sitting down with a guitar anymore. I lost that,” he said in an interview with Pitchfork Magazine. Earlier this year, Vernon’s friend Francis Starlite invented an instrument called the Prismizer; an auto-tune/vocoder which, unlike its predecessors, preserves an unbelievably organic sound and works well with both vocals and instruments. In its short life, the Prismizer has seen use by Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean, and Kanye West. Justin Vernon utilized this technology throughout 22, A Million, and most creatively on the track “____45_____,” in which he bends a saxophone underneath his vocals into an un-orientable Möbius strip of sound.
Vernon’s extreme shift in both ideology and artistry produced an album that challenges its listener. With sparse ties to Bon Iver’s previous works, the album tests even the band’s fan base. For every conventional characteristic of 22, A Million, Vernon intermixes a left-field sound such as the distorted drums on “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” the wailing vocals that comprise “715 – CR∑∑KS,” or the backtracked voice that commences “21 M◊◊N WATER.” Nevertheless, 22, A Million gives its audience an unforgettable peek into its creator’s vision of a delicate life, a world of symbols, and the soundscapes that tie them together. The title of the album’s first track begins with the number “22” and the title of the last ends with the word “Million,” making for a work that truly guides its listener on a journey from “22” to “A Million,” from introspection of self to the vast world beyond.
This article was written by Drew Sneed. Click here to see more of Drew’s work.