A perfect album for impossible times.
The first time I heard 22, A Million, I was walking through Central Park on my way to the hospital where I was working. It was a fall day in 2016 and the leaves were just beginning to change. Donald Trump had yet to be elected, and—as it usually goes with life-changing albums—I had no idea what this album would come to mean to me.
Like many listeners, I was initially thrown off by the song titles' weird punctuation and by the abstract sounds of tracks like 10 d E A T h b R E a s T. But somehow, over the next few months—as the American simulation began to glitch and shatter around me—22, A Million became a life force and then a sacred text.
22, A Million is Bon Iver's most experimental and difficult album to date. It's full of screeches, floaty synths that blur into pulsing basslines, bizarre bursts of harmonies that flare up like hordes of locusts. Before its release, Bon Iver was mostly known as the man who spent months isolated in a cabin writing sleepy, snowy folk songs.
His second album, Bon Iver, was more sonically diverse and sweeping in scale than the sparse and gloomy For Emma, Forever Ago; but still, it couldn't have prepared anyone for what was to come. Kanye West's remix of the Bon Iver "Woods" in "Lost in the World" was perhaps the best harbinger of the direction in which Vernon was going.
Kanye West - Lost In The World (Explicit) ft. Bon Iver www.youtube.com
Vernon has always refused to write using conventional lyrics—instead, he uses words as another instrument, bending their syntax to communicate untranslatable ideas. His voice is also a shapeshifter, one that soars to amazing heights and then flutters to subterranean lows, one that can embody millions of different tones.
On 22, A Million, he spun his chameleonic vocals with ambitious electronic processors, and what resulted is a weird, luminous album, filled with patches of darkness and moments of total perfection. As out-of-control as the album sounds, the deeper you listen, the clearer it is that each shift and chord change is perfectly planned, perfectly mixed. It's perfection is disguised as disaster, a Frankenstein with a heart too pure for this world.
Thematically, it's hard to say what 22, A Million is actually about, and that feels like the point. Its imagery provides clues; the album cover features dozens of religious symbols, as do most of its music videos.
22 (OVER S∞∞N) www.youtube.com
Sometimes, the album seems to be about a crisis of faith, an excavation of the impossible contradictions of the world's myriad spiritual traditions. Yet as it tears apart the contradictions of faith, it sometimes touches on something divine.
The majority of religious and spiritual faiths, from Taoism to Christianity to your average women's circle, profess a belief in some kind of eternal, undying energy. This energy, sometimes called God or sometimes called gnosis or sometimes called haunting, transcends our flawed human lives and connects us to the source of all things.
Vernon—or whatever spirit he channeled the album from—knows there is something more out there, something that connects us all, something far greater than the messy fabrications of our lives—and sometimes, we can create works of art that are so beautiful they scrape up against that deeper truth.
Yet the world constantly gets in his way, blocking his journey towards the truth he knows is there just beyond sight. He reaches for faith and loses it over and over. The music is the manifestation of that yearning and the constant disappointment that too often accompanies believing in anything at all while being alive.
Take the final track, "00000 Million," a perfect song. "A word about Gnosis: it ain't gonna buy the groceries," he sings in that tune. In the similarly perfect "33, 'GOD'" there's the line "I could go forward in the light, well I better fold my clothes."
00000 Million www.youtube.com
22, A Million meant Vernon had finally left his cabin and immersed himself in the chaos of the modern world. It's not a good world, but Bon Iver turned its brokenness into one of the best albums of the 21st century. The production is gorgeous and the arrangements so exquisite that when I'm listening to it, it doesn't even matter if it's all meaningless in the end. Thank God for Bon Iver.