If your only experience with Bon Iver was “Skinny Love,” the hit song off the Justin Vernon-fronted band’s debut album, Bon Iver’s third studio album, 22, A Million would seem as if it was from an alternate universe.
Switching from the acoustic folk sound he became known for, the latest album chooses electronic elements over minimalistic vocals and instruments. Although some of the electronic aspects of 22, A Million could be heard in Bon Iver, which was released five years ago, nothing of this scale and centrality was present in the sound of Bon Iver.
Weaving in samples of other songs with Vernon’s vocals, the album takes a new musical and thematic direction, abandoning the theme of travel as a remedy for heartbreak that was so present in Bon Iver’s first two albums.
For Emma, Forever Ago was created after Vernon spent a few months in a cabin in rural Wisconsin after a rough breakup. Bon Iver is similarly tied to impressions of place, and nearly every track on the album is named after a location.
22, A Million completely eschews this aesthetic in favor of the significance of numbers. The album is itself titled with numbers, every song title has at least one number in it. However, even more than numbers, the album is obsessed with time over place.
In the very first lyric of the album, on “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” the line “it might be over soon” opens the song and is repeated throughout. The listener is pulled into the world of the album where place no longer matters because time helps one let go of its significance.
This album is certainly experimental and ambitious. Many artists would not be able to successfully translate this kind of experiment in a way where the end result wasn’t overdone or precocious. 22, A Million doesn’t feel like either. It is, at times, moving, at others witty, but never lacking self-awareness.
Vernon’s handle on songwriting and avoiding traditional song patterns drives the album. By lacking a formula to his songs, the time games the album plays are all the more significant. The lack of linearity in the songs complements the meaning of the operation of time in our lives.
“33 “GOD”,” particularly reliant on the importance of numbers in the album, is possibly named in reference to the age that Jesus is traditionally believed to have been at the time of the crucifixion. The song was released as a single 33 days before the album, and it is 3:33 in length.
The video for the album opens with a quote from Psalm 22: “Why are you so far from saving me?” Biblical accounts of the crucifixion quote Jesus’ last words as a line from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “33 “GOD”” references growing older and the uncertainty that accompanies it, mirroring the doubt in the psalm.
Very notably, the song includes the line “these will just be places to me now,” a clear rejection of location as a driver of the first two albums. “33 “GOD”” anchors the album and proposes major themes of existentialism, self-searching and, of course, the ever-present numerology that permeates 22, A Million.
22, A Million is not a project anyone could pull off. Bon Iver’s (more accurately, Vernon’s) masterful handling of this different direction is the beginning of a modern era for Bon Iver. After two albums released relatively close to one another, this latest undertaking, five years post-Bon Iver, presents a new idea, new sound and new methods. 22, A Million, puts to rest the cabin-in-the-woods ethos that made Bon Iver great and brings to life a futuristic creation that looks forward to what will come next.
Featured Photo Credit: Featured photo courtesy of Chris on Flickr.
Katrina Schmidt is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.