Updated: Nov 2, 2021
Album: 22, A Million
Artist: Bon Iver
Non-Airable Tracks: n/a
A preface, before the pretentiousness:
I sound overtly-fancy in this entire review, not only because this record's material is just so opaque that I think it needs this type of analysis and wording, but the record itself is also pretentious. For that, I do apologize. However, this was the hardest thing I've ever had to write. Over the course of two months, I've tried my hardest to collect and control my thoughts on this brilliantly fascinating experience.
These have been difficult, gripping, nostalgic, depressing, fulfilling, and eye-opening writing sessions. Regardless of its outlook, here are my painfully specific thoughts on one of my favorite albums of all time, "22, A Million" by Bon Iver.
"I'm a creature of comfort."
Honestly, it's hard to put into words what "22, A Million" means to me, an album so dense, avant-garde, catatonic, robotic, robust, cathartic, beautiful, chaotic... phew, I have to catch my breath sometimes.
One reason is that I'm trying to collect my thoughts in a concise manner for the first time on this piece of art. Ever since I listened to this record, there's been this metaphorical, aching pain in my head. I remember it vividly. The sounds caressed and stabbed my chest. The voices beckoned and shrieked loudly into my ears. The record comforted and shunned my every being. To this day, I still feel like this with every listen, synapses in my brain constantly firing off as if I hadn't previously heard it. Let’s start from the beginning...
"22 (OVER S∞∞N)", a suffocating, fragile opening track. The constant C# with such a warm tone and a cold timbre that it becomes the very definition of juxtaposition. Blossoming like the petals of a blue hydrangea swaying in the crisp, winter breeze, clean guitar tones soon come soaring over the now saxophone-laden landscape. It feels like you're standing on the edge of a massive abyss. With lyrics just as uplifting and heart-wrenching alongside its cold yet enveloping vibe, I always reassure myself, "I'm glad this is just the beginning."
Just as the listener becomes comfortable and at ease with such a breathtaking opener, an amazing blizzard arrives with staggering results. You dive into the chasm. The hobbling percussion on "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄" becomes the only thing to which you're accustomed for two and a half minutes, with vocal layering heavenly and an instrumental far-away, yet just as close as it could ever be. The deep bass rumbles as if to elicit a powerful emotional response or make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. And just as the saxophones come and go like angels blessing...
Abrupt and emotive:
“Down along the creek, I remember something”
Do you have those songs that instantly tug on every atom in your body? Apparently I don't have many, because whenever I hear "715 - CR∑∑KS", every emotion becomes numb, every bodily movement halts, and Justin Vernon's autotune-soaked vocals become the only palpable instance, the only fleeting moment, the only possible thing to comfort, console, delight, depress, relieve, refresh, sooth, and encourage.
“Low moon don the yellow road, I remember something”
The star shines brighter. Falsetto becomes a plentiful reality.
“Toiling with your blood, I remember something”
The feelings that Vernon expresses become too powerful to contain, as the robotic tone of his voice evolves even more pronounced, jagged, enveloping, and emotional. The climax feels like it comes early, but hugs just as tightly. The simple melody feels complex like an ancient tablet, the lyrics written on pure emerald and inscribed with intent to enlighten.
“Oh then, how we gonna cry?”
Even when I'm not listening to it, I have chills writing and thinking about this song. It’s overbearing.
I'm definitely not a religious person, but "33 'GOD'" makes me ponder and prod at my own spirituality. With vocoded samples of old, religious country songs draped over these heavenly piano chords, to be blunt, it's hard for me to describe this track. So transcendental, so cathartic, so grand, so realistic. I can't bring the right words, as I totally wish I could say more. The phrases I use don't hold a torch to the sheer grandiosity of the track itself.
"29 Strafford APTS" is also one of those songs that just becomes a loss of words, a jumble of thoughts too dense and too mangled to cleanse the very innards of my being. A melancholic guitar ballad, the track itself is very subtle in the way it presents in bare, fragile emotions. It’s traveling to your favorite place, but realizing that it has changed so much for the better. A constant sensation of unevenness, or friendly candidness, or comforting melancholy. Holistically, the chorus is the most uplifting section, a melody so grand yet calm that it speaks to my inner demons and tells them “You are no more, at least for now, in this single moment.”
Portrayed as one of the lyrical centerpieces of this behemoth, “666 ʇ” is probably the most happy-sounding track here. With syncopated percussion and a billowing instrumental in front of it, Vernon contemplates his own existence in the most bittersweet manner possible in four minutes. He waits for everyone to join him in prayer, and although I won’t be joining him for that reason, I’ll still respect the man for being so driven. This track flashes right past you like the bright lightning bug against a dark background. You’re unsure of its existence but you’re tender and relaxed knowing it won’t hurt you.
Predictably, numerology is super important to this record’s narrative structure and theme. Look no further than “21 M◊◊N WATER”, which acts almost as an interlude-type track, tying together the loose concept of the album as a whole. The number ‘21’ in the title related to 777 (7x3=21), as confirmed by the album’s beautiful and conceptual artwork. 777 is considered a God’s number in many Western religions, and it also follows / counterbalances the previous track, “666 ʇ”. These little intricacies exist deeper than just this little song, but I think it’s important to mention this detail now because of the contrast and dissonance in sonics. The beginning and middle sections of the track are lush, enveloping, somber, and real, repeating a circular refrain:
The math ahead
The math behind
It’s moon water
The instrumentals here are icy, cold, and numbing until the last 30 seconds roughly, where the sampled and distorted audio clips of a saxophone are cut across these barren, wasteless horns. I feel like this duality ties the entirety of “22, A Million” together: contrast and dissonance are holy and unholy, beautiful and ugly and bright and dark, good and bad are bad and good.
And just as this monstrous and life-affirming theme makes itself known...
Bliss. “8 (circle)” begins.
The once jarring and unnerving saxophones on the previous track are now soothing and droning, as if windmills powering a distant city ever so gently and effortlessly. This track is passing through a threshold, living at the height of a drug trip, deciding whether or not to help a person in need, trying to recall amazing memories... (at this point in my writing, tears roll down my face as this song fades in and out of consciousness in the background).
Even so, the track celebrates the pride in being good, being genuine, and having a healthy heart. It presents hope as if in a box you haven’t opened yet, saved only for a specific time.
And that part around four and half minutes into the track where the saxophones blare and the background vocals beckon, feels like an ego death. It is here where I am left at a crossroads of sorts.
Only being 18 years old at my time of writing, I can make a choice.
For all of the times I’ve been petty, sour, negative, judgmental, or just plain mean, I count the times that I’ve been understanding, sympathetic, compassionate, and positive. I realize that the difference isn’t as steep as I hoped it would be. So early in my life, I have that choice to be better than I have already been. If any album can open me up to my insecurities and problems and make me look deeper inside myself, it’s definitely this one.
Now, the comedown.
“____45_____” is mainly driven by its saxophone performance. A sweet melody atop Vernon’s heavenly vocals feels like the bitter wind of a crisp, winter morning. Flakes of snow kiss your face like butterflies, attributed to the lonely banjo plucks towards the end. Beauty reimagined.
“00000 Million” is the humble finale and bittersweet ending to our journey. I look at how fragile my skin is and how fragile my words are, and remember that this song’s fragility makes it unique. The simplicity of ending this bountiful album with a piano ballad is a risk to say the least. With little to no electronic embellishment affixed and compared to the rest of the record, the piano feels whole, and Vernon’s voice feels consoling as ever. The song speaks as if to say “You’ve made it here, but now what?”
It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves in times of juxtaposing struggle and relief. It’s the phrase you hear in your head when you’ve reached your final destination or accomplished your final goal. I like to think of “22, A Million” as my ‘now what’ statement. The stories that Vernon foretells on this album are cut up like little phrases on a linoleum floor. They are widely relatable, and even though they obviously weren’t written to speak to me, personally, I can find solace in the fact that these instances really do have meaning. What I will experience in my life may have outreaching influences just as this, and I have to be mindful of that fragile fact.
Maybe this will make you think of the record in a new light, maybe it will change your opinion. Hell, maybe it will make you want to listen again. I don’t think I have that power honestly, but maybe I can change something in you to think better and even more morally about your outward actions to the world. I know this album made me think about my place and my purpose a bit, so what will it do for you?
5 How will you make this world a better place?
4 What will be y∞ur ∞utl∞∞k?
3 Wh⚄t will be y∞ur c⚄lling?
2 Is y∞ur ⚄nsw∑r w∞rthy?
1 Ar∑ y◊u w∞rʇhy?
Color: Yellow, Blue, Red
Perfume Genius - Too Bright
LUMP - Animal
AURORA - Running With the Wolves
29 Strafford APTS
715 - CRΣΣKS
Reviewer’s Name: Trey Cardi
Date of Review: 9/8/21