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.