Album Of The Week – 22, A Million / Bon Iver

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Bon Iver is a really interesting band if you want to look at bands that really represent how modern technology is arming musicians with the means to push what boundaries we have left – and there aren’t many. Genres are almost completely useless, both from the producers of music and the consumers, as everybody just consumes everything, no matter what labels we put on things. This technology has elevated Bon Iver from a highly organic folk project with Justin Vernon at the centre to a highly synthetic multi-genre and multi-person thing. It’s harder to pin down, and that’s what’s great about it, that it’s very hard even now to say Bon Iver is ‘this’. Vernon has embraced autotune in a way only he and Kanye West have been able to master, to use such a highly synthetic and ‘fake’ instrument to construct beauty. And Vernon isn’t like Kanye – he can sing, so the autotune is an interesting choice. And despite all of this access to technology and communication, have we ever felt more disconnected from everything? When Vernon poses a question about how to be a human being, or repeatedly references God, it creates a stark contrast, and draws attention to why we shouldn’t be more connected. Famously Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago was created in relative isolation in a cabin in rural Wisconsin, but that was self-imposed. What happens when the isolation isn’t self imposed, and what’s worse, it’s when we’re surrounded by millions of people who feel exactly the same but can’t articulate it to each other?

The technology sometimes gets too much, funnily enough. On the first track, ’22’, and on ’29’*, there are purposeful glitches in Vernon’s extended vocal to the point of being unlistenable. If it’s an aesthetical choice, it completely guts the song, especially in the final chorus of ’29’ and if it’s to represent a fragmentation – of the mind – it’s still very off-putting. Because very often, 22, A Million is very beautiful, so when Vernon allows little inconsistencies to break the lovely guitar strums of ’22’ or the quiet folk of ’29’, it’s infuriating. Fortunately the album has very little of these, and we can get to praising this thing. Technology has saved Bon Iver, in a way. Not only has it freed Bon Iver from folk, but it pushes 22, A Million into something interesting. It began on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, but it is a bigger transformation here, like the watery synths and chaotic backing vocals on ‘666’. Similarly, Vernon offers another ‘Woods’ on ‘715’, where he uses autotune, specifically a system called Messina, to split off multiple vocals from his own, so there’s one higher pitch and one lower pitch, and often when he really reaches deep, it’s overwhelming and magical. It isn’t what autotune was invented for, but hearing ‘715’, you could almost imagine this is what it is for. There isn’t even any extra instrumentation as Vernon remembers his character being abandoned by a creek (with more bible references about being left by the reeds and the more blunt ‘God damn, turn around now), and perhaps that character is comparing being left behind by a lover with being left by parents. Once again, Bon Iver is alone.

The numbers in the titles and the various religious references are important. Both represent hard facts and figures, and in the case of religion, explanations for the wrongs of life from divine knowledge. When something bad happens, you turn to science or faith to explain why it happened, even if the reason is much nearer and much more simple. The answer is often us, but Vernon is almost in denial, looking to much bigger things in order to explain very small faults. On one of the tracks where Bon Iver becomes the larger band that the live performances show, 33 “GOD”, it could be seen as a defeatist song, about how nothing really matters as we can’t live forever to enjoy it. But I think it’s a plea to enjoy what is presented in front of us, and the smaller things we never look to enjoy, like on the line ‘I’d be as happy as hell, if you stayed for tea’ or the sample from Jim Ed Brown’s song ‘Morning’, where they sample ‘Here in this room, this narrow room where life began when we were young last night’, and that’s about enjoying intimacy and not seeing it as a purely momentary happiness.

22, A Million feels like a big concept squeezed into a short space of time (it’s only a minute longer than the Pixies album that got released today – 33 minutes), but it’s one of those condensed concept albums and God knows it has the front cover for a concept album. It set itself a monumental task of dealing with alienation in the face of mass communication and its length and mystery has left us with plenty of questions to ask. Yes, the interpretation of the numbers and titles will be endlessly entertaining, but even at face interpretation it’s very interesting. The logic of maths and equations sitting directly next to the comforting reassurance of religion plays havoc with Vernon’s problems with the lack of things staying still, or being logical at all. The point of all of these things whizzing around Vernon’s mind is that it is too much. There is too much ‘stuff’ going on around us, much of it contradicting and arguing with each other. Bon Iver asks if we should sift through it all and try to make sense of it, or if we’re overwhelmed by it, or if ‘Well it harms me, it harms me, it harms me, I’ll let it in’ as Vernon sings on ‘00000’, and we can accept that it might hurt us, or it will help us make ourselves better humans, if there is such a thing. Clearly, we’ve not done a good job of articulating this album, and it’s very hard to do. Some things are too big to explain.

Funnel Recommends: 715 – CRΣΣKS / 33 “GOD” / 666 ʇ

*We shortened the titles of the tracks, because we’re really not keen on copying and pasting ’10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ over and over again.

New Music – Jesus Alone / Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds

There’s been lots of emphasis that this is a dark album even by Nick Cave’s standards. Look at the album art in comparison to Push The Sky Away, or even the barebones of the title – Skeleton Tree. Then there’s the obvious links to the tragic death of Cave’s son. So now that we actually have a first taste of the album, how does it match up? It’s pretty new territory for the Seeds, as it turns out. There’s less prominent instrumentation – sure, there’s piano and the ghost of a guitar, but this could easily be a piece of ambient music if Cave wasn’t intoning dark imagery over the top. He keeps calling out – ‘You’re a…’ followed by different kinds of people; ‘You’re a young man waking covered in blood that is not yours’, ‘You’re an African doctor harvesting tear ducts’, or my favourite ‘You’re a woman in a yellow dress surrounded by a charm of hummingbirds’. It’s vivid stuff, seemingly interested in moments of pure life and pure death – ‘lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers’, ‘Let us sit together in the dark until the moment comes’, ‘Drug addict lying on your back’. It’s not so much bothered with verses and choruses, and there’s little variation. It’s creepy, graphic and dark. What more could you ask from Nick Cave?

Album Review – M3LL155X / FKA Twigs

FKA Twigs just dropped this EP following the teasers of ‘Glass & Patron’ and ‘Figure 8’, which I reviewed positively. Sounding like an Aphex Twin release, M3LL155X was recorded in the wake of last years’ LP1 and keeps up the consistency of Twigs’ releases as well as offering new sounds and styles to her palette. It’s her most diverse selection of songs yet and also her most exceptional. This may be an EP, but it reminds of a full-length Bjork release such as Vulnicura from earlier this year. By incorporating more pop structures, icier atmospherics and even a few lines of rapping on ‘In Time’ FKA Twigs has proved once again she can appeal to pop whilst exploring the verges of experimental electronic and R’n’B music.

‘Figure 8’ is much bigger sounding than previously previewed on the Beats1 radio show. Here, it begins like a bit like the start of ‘Black Skinhead’ beefed up. It’s an all-out assault on the ears 40 seconds in, before returning to the trip-hop of the track. Similarly noisy is ‘I’m Your Doll’, the next track, with a creepy video that goes along with it. Twigs returns to the disembodiment of sex and control, where she demands ‘Love me rough, I’m your doll’ and ‘Wind me up, I’m your doll’. The track is sparse on the electronics until the outro, where what sounds like a Death Grips industrial guitar cuts through the coldness. It’s an interesting turn of instrumentation, veering from the echoing snares and bass which Twigs usually sticks to.

‘In Time’ is a fast-tempo track for FKA Twigs, sounding like an off-cut from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, especially with her rapping which completely changes her voice. She’s not a natural rapper, but it gives a whole dimension to her vocals. The track incorporates Grimes-like scales patterns, and yes, it’s a whole new approach for Twigs. M3LL155X keeps in theme with FKA Twigs lyrics, which isn’t surprising considering how close it was recorded to LP1, with themes of sex, fame (especially in modelling and dancing) and dominant/submissive characters. It’s creepily interesting, as always, where ‘Glass & Patron’ repeats ‘Figure 8’s ‘Hold That Pose’ to reinforce the message.

Sure, there are weak tracks. ‘In Time’ and ‘Mothercreep’ don’t hold up to ‘Figure 8’ or ‘I’m Your Doll’, but do offer their own new styles. Each track shows a different side to Twigs: rap, pop, experimentalism, noise. It’s so exciting to see an artist keep producing such prolific music time and time again, always evolving into something else. If M3LL155X is anything to go by, Twigs’ next album could be any number of things. This EP simply throws any predictors off, as anything Twigs’ touches turns to musical gold.

8/10