Can one exist in the past, present and future at the same time? Where all three states of being are codified into a single, unified existence? This is one of the grandstanding questions that Justin Vernon tackles in Bon Iver’s third album, 22, a Million. And it’s his auto-tuned pursuit of that answer which echoes a depiction of fourth dimensional living in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”:
“Tralfamadorians … can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti. And Trafalmadorians don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes – “with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other.”
Not unlike a long exposure video; Vonnegut’s imagery provides us with a critter-inspired vision of someone existing in all three corners of time’s triumvirate: the past, present and future. Like so, Bon Iver’s 22, a Million provides listeners with his attempt at construing his past, surviving his present and finding his future in simultaneous fashion, and then plugging those experiences into a maze of coded lyrics, electronic intonations and frenetic instrumentation. And what emerges from that cataloging is a staggering body of work that embodies the best of what artistic experimentation has to offer.
In a year that’s already filled to the brim with new offerings from introspective crooners, bombastic rappers, and idiosyncratic rockers, Bon Iver’s 22, a Million gives listeners a rousing newness in sound and structure. Much of what it offers is uncharted territory, an audible experience that warrants no comparison other than to what preceded it. And as little blips of familiarity appear, they tether themselves to his previous works: For Emma, Forever Ago, Blood Bank and Bon Iver, Bon Iver. There, the past comes into collision with the present. 22, a Million feels unique despite its nostalgic trappings. Like deja vu.
It’s the warm synth aura of “8 (circle)” that whiffs of “Beth/Rest”; standouts in their own respective albums. The lone layered vocals of “715 – CRΣΣKS” hark back to “Woods”, a personal favorite of Kanye West. But instead of the repetition in “Woods”, “715 – CRΣΣKS” reaches for diverse aggression, stacking more pathos into each successive line. And “29 #Stafford APTS” comes closest to echoing the wintry soul of For Emma, Forever Ago. Its wholesomely folk tune, light acoustic plucking, vocal echoes and mellow tone strengthens the bloodlines that relate the two. In 22, a Million, these connections abound when you look closely for them. The past is exquisitely folded into the present. And those moments of realization make the listening experience all the better.
In a press release, Justin Vernon wrote that “ If Bon Iver, Bon Iver built a habitat rooted in physical spaces, then 22, A Million is the letting go of that attachment to a place.” And it’s that act of letting go that intersects his three timelines as one; a release of the past, an acting in the present, and a yearning for a future. It’s this retirement that’s reflected in the coded lyrics of 22, a Million. Run down the track list and you can extract the emotional arc of a journey from start to finish. From incited movement ( “So I’m standing at the station”) to second thoughts ( “When we leave this room its gone” ) to coming towards a crossroads ( “The path ahead/the path behind it”) to arrival at last (“I’m standing in your street now so”) and reflection at how far he’s come (“Must’ve been forces, that took me on them wild courses”).
But even in this lyrical haze, 22, a Million allows its audience to re-interpret and re-order what’s already been expressed. It opens itself up to personal revelations, allowing the gaps in explicit meaning to be filled in with the coloring of our own personal narratives. It encourages the listener to attach their own significance to the words we hear, and even to the fictional ones (“fuckified” “dedicoding”) which are sung with emboldened punctuation. And that’s when 22, a Million takes us on the same journey it’s been telegraphing throughout the entire album. As we begin to ascribe our memories to it, we feel our timelines coming to a head as well.
And that act of deeming personal significance is further reinforced by one of 22, a Million’s central tenets: the pastoral themes. From titling two songs as “666 ʇ,” and “33 ‘GOD’” to employing a verse from the Book of Psalms (“why are you so far from saving me?”), these hints of spiritual searching lend deeper meaning to the emotional weight of the album. Even the terminology that’s sung (“canonize”, “consecration” and “hark!”) further illuminate subtle feelings of sanctification. And these concepts lead lyrical inquiries into the existential (“I’m still standing in your need of prayer”) as it considers the state of the human soul. But it seems, rather than the Psalms, that 22, a Million is more evocative its far gloomier, beset cousin, the Book of Ecclesiastes.
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Futility, pain, vanity, death and meaninglessness. These are the matters that the Teacher writes about in Ecclesiastes. And they parallel the sentiments that are expressed in 22, a Million, especially in the album’s final track “00000 Million”. Raw, gripping emotion abounds as the Teacher struggles over the futility of his existence (“I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless.”). Lines from ‘00000 Million’ such as “I worry about the worn path”, “cause the days have no numbers”, and “If it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in” echo equivalent sentiments as well- feelings of uncertainty, emptiness and resignation respectively. But then the song’s final line reiterates the lyric (“if it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in”) but this time in the present tense (“Well it harms, it harms me, it harms, I’ll let it in”). No longer a statement of resigned surrender but now an declaration of pyrrhic acceptance. It’s Bon Iver’s recognition of his previous haunts, an absorption of the ever-present ache, and a resolution to chase after a better tomorrow, capping off a masterful vision of his past, present and future collapsing into one.