After winning a few Grammys, Bon Ivers Justin Vernon found himself panicked and lost in the world. His third album is a triumphant study in learning to just be OK.”>
Countless films and novels over the years have pushed the fable of a person deliberately setting about to find themselves with a dramatic journey, a complete reinvention, or a cathartic scream into an infinite abyss.
Justin Vernon, founder and leader of Bon Iver, himself has played a role in this mythology.
Before his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon experienced a painful breakup, dissolved a few bands, contracted pneumonia, mononucleosis, and fought off a liver infection. To fight the despair, he went to live in his fathers remote hunting cabin during the harsh Wisconsin winter. And out came the music.
But that was ages ago. And Vernon didnt necessarily find himself in that cabinjust a sound that worked.
As he revealed in interviews previewing his third full-length, 22, A Million, musical success doesnt necessarily mean hes gotten any closer to understanding himself.
Following the runaway success of the bands Grammy-winning sophomore record, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Vernon experienced waves of panic and self-doubt. He took a solo trip to Europe to find clarity, but all that did was exacerbate his woes.
Dont go to the Greek islands off-season, by yourself. I was trying to find myself. Did not, he explained this month. And so goes the truth about those finding yourself narratives in pop culture: There are no easy answers; and life is not a movie.
As such, 22, A Million is a 35-minute exploration of that search for self-understanding and the realization that it doesnt come as willingly as youd expect. Growing into your own soul takes patience and painand you definitely cant plan it.
During an existential crisis, all you can do is step out of the dust cloud and hope it might be over soon. As Vernon roamed Greek islands alone, feeling helpless, he began humming those exact wordsIt might be over soonuntil it became something of a mantra. And then the basis for the albums heartrending opener, 22 (OVER SN).
Atop an elegiac, slow-burn chord progression, Vernon coos that line over and over again, as if to pacify the raging storm inside his mind. Within a rise there lies a scission, he admits of his ascent to fame; but never mind the troubles, it might be over soon.
Perhaps scaling back from Bon Ivers grandiose, heavily orchestrated second album, Vernon resists overindulgence here. Just as the refrain becomes an anthemic gospel chant, begging for Krishna-like repetition, the song ends.
A maudlin string arrangement carries listeners to 10 d E A T h b R E a s T , a meditation on insecurity led by distorted drums and occasionally pitched-up vocals (bonus points for inventing the word fuckified).
The song is a reminder that along Vernons rise to music stardom, he was plucked out of the indie world to work with Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That studio time with Yeezy clearly had its impact on Bon Iver: The jarringly primal drums on the second song, along with the pulsing bass synth on standout track 33 GOD, are reminiscent of production from Wests punk-rap opus Yeezus.
Likewise, 29 #Strafford APTS is a dreamy folk ballad in the vein of Bon Iver, but then Vernon tosses in some pitched-down harmonies and some pitched-up bridge vocals to obscure its simplicity.
And in that song is where listeners can better understand what the band meant when they said the album would contain contexts of intense memories, signs that you can pin meaning onto or disregard as coincidence.
Sharing smoke in the stair up off the hot car lot, Vernon wistfully croons to open the song. Such details of a shared experience with another human may seem prosaic, but set against vivid instrumentationevoking a mumblecore films understated climaxit becomes revelatory.
The journey to self-understanding and recovery, the album suggests, is neither obvious nor instantaneous; its made up of countless experiences and memoriesmundane or notthat shape how we view ourselves and the world around us.
That attitude toward finding oneself is never more present than in 22, A Millions sublimely gorgeous final two ballads.
8 (circle) is the spiritual successor to Beth/Rest, the sax-and-synth-drenched closer to their previous album. Across both torch songs, Vernon channels Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel for an iconic 80s film soundtrack-like sound.
Im standing in your street now / And I carry his guitar, he sings as ethereal brass and bass swoon in the background. You can almost imagine John Cusack in his trench coat, boombox hoisted overhead with this particular Bon Iver tune blaring.
And then, after a subdued interlude, we come to the albums spiritual core in closing track 00000 Million.
Over plaintive and intimate acoustic piano reminiscent of Tom Waitss best bawlers, Vernon delivers a hymnal for the neurotics; a sermon for those whove yet to see the light at the end of their tunnel.
I worried bout rain and I worried bout lightning, Vernon says. But I watched them all off to the light of the morning.
In other words: It will be over soon.
And with a proud resignation, Vernon delivers the albums central lesson: dont be afraid. After all, life is one long struggle against changebest to wave the white flag sometimes.
Well if it harms me, it harms me, he boldly declares. Ill let it in.