Let’s get this out the way first: I have never liked Bon Iver. In the past, I found Justin Vernon's overwhelming sincerity to be a mask for the utterly humourless, his tendency towards the maudlin to be a prop for those whose pain and sadness were merely much deeper, and far greater than anyone else’s. In short, I wished he would journey back to his log cabin and take up a far nobler pursuit. Whittling, maybe. It seems to be the fashion right now.
But against my entrenched displeasure, my anti-Bon Iver vibes that journey towards the sectarian I actually really, really like new album ‘22, A Million’. In fact, I’m actually kind of hypnotised by it.
One of the last occasions that fans in the UK glimpsed Justin Vernon was at last summer’s Glastonbury festival, located some 100 feet behind and 50 feet below a Yeezy-guided cherry picker. In a way, Justin Vernon and Kanye West are perfect for one another: the incredible overreach, the bizarre sense of self-worth, and the ludicrous, ludicrous lack of anything approaching irony.
And they are both entirely fascinating. After all, who else but Justin Vernon could effortlessly move in such abstract directions, but yet also provide some of his simplest, most effective songwriting? The tracklisting – which created a wave of social media mirth on its unveiling – is in fact attached to some of the downright prettiest work in the Bon Iver catalogue. Opening cut ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ might veer towards the infinite with those lemniscates symbolism but it is in fact done and dusted in under three minutes – and that’s including those wisps of high-pitched, vastly distorted backing vocals.
‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ may yearn to link sex with death, to be “unorphaned in our northern lights” but it’s also probably one of the first singer-songwriter efforts (which it still, loosely, is) to use the word “fuckified”. ‘33 “GOD”’ meanwhile, finds Justin Vernon in search of “God, and religions too” while (and we’re not making this up) staying at uber-hip Shoreditch spot the Ace Hotel – a search so stylishly noble and helplessly oblique that it somehow recasts Justin Vernon as existing somewhere between an aspiring hip-priest and Don Quixote.
And yet, and yet, and yet…
‘22, A Million’ is easy to mock – it’s a gift for the cynics out there, those desperate for Justin Vernon to make what would arguably be his first real, true misstep. But when the laughter stops what you’re left with is a real gem – a record laced with ideas, and fresh invention, but also one packed with SONGS.
‘29 #Strafford APTS’ is about as straight as Bon Iver play it on this record, all wistful acoustic guitar and a time-faded piano line with an effect half-inched from a Tom Waits LP. It’s ineffably gorgeous, and incredibly affecting. ‘Moon Water’ allows some of the record’s most straight-forward lyrics to fade into the abstract, the words dissolved in noise, an echoing saxophone sampled twisted and turned in an act of aural ablution.
‘8 (circle)’ is the longest track on the record, and it’s perhaps the closest Justin Vernon ever gets to fully unmasking himself: “Haven’t I locked up my failures?” he asks, “wouldn’t I be last to see?” It’s somewhere between an 80s R&B cut and a church hymn, affording enormous space to the vocal – and it needs it, uniting the record’s themes of religion, numerology, destruction by fire, and the art of forgiveness. Astonishingly, it aims to unite T.S. Eliot and Womack & Womack. Even more astonishingly, it kinda pulls it off.
Yes, ‘22, A Million’ is painfully, painfully sincere. Yes, it’s also hopelessly oblique, grandiose, and pretentious. Yet it’s also an absolute diamond of a record, at once fragrantly beautifully and also hopelessly complex, easy to disregard and yet thoroughly hypnotic.
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