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Culture Shock

Bon Iver--22, A Million

Released 9/30/2016


I don’t want to deal in universals, but I think it might be safe to say that a lot of us have had very important moments in our lives soundtracked by Bon Iver albums. I remember listening to For Emma, Forever Ago while staring out a bus window the day after Christmas, somewhere in Pennsylvania in the middle of the night.

I remember, “Someway, baby, it's part of me, apart from me,” in the choir room after school. And “Blood Bank” every first snow and “Someday my pain, someday my pain will mark you.” And looking back, it seems a bit out of place that such heavy songs outlined a time in my life that’s stereotypically defined by its lightheartedness. Somehow it still fit.

Listening to 22, A Million, I’m struck by the gorgeousness of the album, but maybe more than that, I wonder what this album will mark for all of us—where Vernon & Co. find us now.

For Bon Iver, the record marks a departure from the acoustic-driven, darkly brooding songs of old. “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” begins the album on a hopeful note. The song immediately demonstrates the mastery of production evident in every track on 22, A Million. Although complex and richly layered, what is delivered is a deceptively simple and pared down song about moving through. The repetition of “It might be over soon” doesn’t just denote an ending, but the inevitability of what comes next.

“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” follows with a heavy bass and a rhythm that grinds the track along. “715 - CR∑∑KS” feels like “Woods” grew up—more nuanced, just as stunning. Like a lot of this album, this song exists in this tension between past and present, between holding on and letting go. “33 ‘GOD’” begins as a piano ballad that gradually twists into something that can’t fit easily into any categorization. We get a hint of Bon Iver’s origins with an unassuming banjo line.

“29 #Strafford APTS” should satisfy any die-hard acoustic Bon Iver fans, but even this song is cradled in sax and piano and careful layers of production. It’s a standout track because it is sonically intriguing while also managing to follow a melody that’s endlessly pleasing. “29 #Strafford APTS” walks that line between ingenuity and comfort—stringing us along while occasionally giving us just the progressions we wanted.

“____45_____” begins to wind down the album with the repetition of the line, “I’ve been caught in fire.” But the lines blend together and it’s hard to tell whether he’s been caught in, carved in, or perhaps coughing fire; the ambiguity feels intentional. The track bleeds into “00000 Million,” which, like “29 #Strafford APTS,” follows some gratifying melodies. This piano-lead song is unambiguously about uncertainty and slowly moving forward. “I worry about one path / I wander often just to come back home.” It’s a beautiful testament to the second guess.

And maybe that’s what this album is to me. It deals with these themes of uncertainty while knowing exactly how it wants to address them. The songs do not waver even if their author does. That’s the contradiction, and that’s the beauty too.

So where does 22, A Million find us now? Maybe we’ve moved past “Skinny Love” and pining silently (or maybe not). Maybe it isn’t so much the majesty of “Michicant” as it’s the tinkling pulse of “666 ʇ.” And it’s not that all the years of brooding and hoping and crying and mulling it over to “Blindsided” weren’t wildly important. It’s just that now, perhaps Bon Iver finds us ready to make such blithely hopeful assertions as, “I’d be happy as hell if you stayed for tea.”

I hope so.


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