Dan Bachman ’17: Hello, I am Dan Bachman and I’m an opinion editor for The Argus.
Claire Shaffer ’18: I’m Claire Shaffer. I’m a staff writer.
DB: And we’re gonna do a cross talk on the new Bon Iver album. 22, A Million?
DB: 22, A Million.
CS: Initial thoughts?
DB: I want to go back to initial thoughts on Bon Iver itself, as an idea.
CS: As a band?
DB: Yeah, as a band, what it means to us. My first encounter with Bon Iver was when I went to an arts program here at Wes when I was 16, and the guy who lived next door asked me what I listen to, and being an “edgy” 16 year old, I talked a lot about Tool—“I really love Tool, Tool is the best, etc”—and he told me his favorite album was Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. So I gave it a listen. And now, five years later, Justin Vernon is very near and dear to my heart.
CS: I tried to get into Bon Iver when that album first came out, I guess I was in middle school then. At the time I thought his vocals were super weird.
DB: They are weird.
CS: Yeah, they are weird! So I didn’t really start seriously listening to him until high school, and even then it took me a while to love Bon Iver as much as I do now. But my music taste has shifted quite a lot since I was twelve. And that’s the thing, with this new album here. At this point, Bon Iver/Justin Vernon… you can pretty much say that they are the same thing.
DB: Yeah they’re interchangeable.
CS: Bon Iver is still a guy with a beard who owns a lot of flannel, and has a guitar and sings about his feelings. That is essentially still what he is. But I think what’s interesting about this album is that he’s taking this new style of music that’s very electronic-heavy, what’s perceived as very ‘cold,’ and making something very warm out of it, warm and fuzzy, like throwing an electronic blanket over you.
DB: That was definitely the thing most striking for me when I first listened to 22, A Million. Just how damn warm the thing was.
CS: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of people calling it this year’s Kid A, in reference to the Radiohead album. Which I find a strange comparison because Kid A is like this…
DB: It’s a very cold and robotic album.
CS: Yeah, it’s cold and robotic, but it’s also a very particular album in terms of the time that it was released. It was very much a Y2K anxiety album. So I see this new Bon Iver album as more of another Radiohead album, In Rainbows. It’s a very warm sounding album, a lot of emotions, even though it does have these electronic experimental sounds in it.
DB: I do think there’s a lot more electronic sounds on 22, A Million than there are on In Rainbows. I think if I were to make a direct line of comparison to music I’ve previously experienced, it would be James Blake’s debut self-titled album, which manages to be both very warm and very cold at the same time. It has this concrete, dark, cavernous aesthetic, with these beautiful vocals and these clicking drums, and this low baseline. I definitely see a through line in how emotional they are, and how much that emotion relies on electronic texture.
CS: There’s just so much sound on this record. Like I keep hearing the term “maximalist production” used to describe Kanye West and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and albums influenced by it, which this one definitely is. What it really means is there’s just a shit-ton of noise – a lot of drumbeats, mainly – in all these songs. But even in the quote-unquote ‘quiet’ tracks – there are only one or two of those – there are still so many unexpected musical elements that pop up out of nowhere. I’m thinking of the track “____45_____,” where you think the album is beginning to wind down. It gets to this one and there’s just a bunch of saxophones and Justin’s voice.
DB: So many saxophones.
CS: Yeah, and it sounds like it was recorded on an iPhone, it’s very sparse. Then, all of a sudden, these banjos come in, and you’re not really sure what he’s going for.
DB: A lot of decisions are left turns, but they make sense.
CS: I find this album amazing with how much they cram in there, but it doesn’t feel shoehorned in, it feels very deliberate.
DB: I think that part of that is that it’s never going for the easy climax.
CS: The entire album is climax.
DB: Particularly for me in the song “666 ʇ.” There’s a lot of things going on; a bleeping melodic motif in the background, guitars, there’s this hissing noise in the chorus that I love. But what’s most noteworthy is that there’s these very aggressive, very loud, low drum pattern that come in halfway through, and you think it’s gonna break into some kind of beat, but it never does.
CS: There’s a lot of build up.
DB: A lot of sustained tension without release. Another virtue of this album is how mercifully short it is.
CS: It’s only 34 minutes.
DB: Ten tracks, most under 3 minutes.
CS: It doesn’t feel short, too, it feels like the perfect length. (Take notes, Frank Ocean.) He says what he needs to say.
DB: Sometimes it feels long, but that’s a good thing. Like each song is its own little world. Like “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄.” It’s less than three minutes and so much happens.
CS: [There’s] another album that this reminds me of, which, I don’t want this whole review to be album comparisons, but it’s hard not to. 22, A Million is a collage of so many different genres. [But] the album that this reminds me of is Hounds of Love by Kate Bush, which is also very good at creating these little worlds and tableaus in its songs, which are all interconnected. The entire second half of that album is this suite that sounds like a play-by-play of a dream Kate Bush had, and you get a very similar effect from 22, A Million. I think that Justin Vernon is a big fan of 80s music in general, and soft rock in particular, and you can definitely hear that in a lot of tracks.
DB: Yeah, some could be written by Bonnie Rait or Billy Joel or someone like that. Very adult contemporary.
CS: “8 (circle)” sounds like it could be the soundtrack of an early 90s television spot for the US National Parks.
CS: It’s a very specific aesthetic, but that’s what it is. He was going for that in his last album (Bon Iver, Bon Iver) as well.
DB: It works like gangbusters, because even when he goes as straightforward as that, there’s a moment when everything drops out, and there’s this odd arrhythmic saxophone line. I love the saxophone on this album.
CS: There are so many saxophones. We should probably talk about the lyrics, too. If you’ve ever heard Bon Iver lyrics, they tend to be very impressionistic.
DB: Or you saw that one amazing SNL sketch where Justin Timberlake played Justin Vernon. Basic idea is that it’s a lot of fragments, a lot of nonsense.
CS: Yeah, it’s moments and images from certain memories that, for him, obviously conjure up a lot feelings.
DB: And conjures feelings in the context of the music, too. It goes along with a lot of songwriters that are more interested in the way words sound than the words themselves. But at the same time there are still lyrics that speak to me, like the repeated “it might be over soon.”
CS: That’s the thing with this album, the fragmentation is still there, but there’re also a lot of straight-up earnest, uplifting lines. Like my favorite moment on the record might be in “33 “GOD”” where he’s going “I could go forward into the light, well I better fold my clothes” and then the drums kick in and it’s like a giant wall breaking down.
DB: And then it all crumbles with a slow motion voice saying “why are you so far from saving me,” which is an incredibly direct line for Justin Vernon. Then there’s “715 – CRΣΣKS”, which begins with something that puts you in-scene with “down along the creek, I remember something,” which is an incredibly direct line for a Bon Iver song. You see a person walking along a rhythm.
CS: I love “715 – CRΣΣKS,” because even though he’s filtered through a Messina, which is basically this machine he built with his engineer to make his voice sound as fucking weird as possible, you can still hear him spitting into the mic.
DB: I think what makes this album work as an as an electronic folk album, is…
CS: Electronic folk, jazz, pop rock, all genres.
DB: Kaleidoscope, numerology. We could do this all day, what makes it work is the struggle to emote through layers of machinery.
CS: Yeah, just on a personal level, even without taking into account how innovative this album is… If Kanye has spent his entire career trying to convince you that he’s a god, this album is trying to convince you that you’re a god.
DB: Interesting, elaborate?
CS: It definitely feels like Justin Vernon is saying “Hey, I have gone through these really shitty emotional ups and downs, and I’m going to talk about it, but mostly I’m going to take little fragments of this memory and that memory and give them to you in the hopes that you may be able to overcome whatever it is you’re going through.”
DB: I think I see what you mean, like “look, here’s a puzzle, you are capable of solving this. Believe in yourself.”
CS: Yeah, exactly that.
DB: We’ve got a lot of material. Closing thoughts? I love this album, I think it’s my favorite Bon Iver album and that means a lot for an artist I’ve been following for a long time. It’s nice to see that there are still places for him to go, avenues to discover.