Bon Iver: 22, A Million – the downsides of success never sounded so good

Justin Vernon’s latest seems in part to be a reaction against his experience of fame, but it’s a lot more fun than such albums tend to be

Last week, the Guardian printed an interview with Justin Vernon. The man who is, to all intents and purposes, Bon Iver did not seem terribly happy with his lot in life. Not for the first time, he talked wistfully about giving up music altogether – his “dream” is apparently to open a cafe – or vanishing from public. Sometimes he sounded like someone engaged in the traditional American alt-rock star’s pastime of laying it on a bit thick about the pressures of fame. He now declines to show his face unobscured in photographs, presumably in an attempt to alleviate the terrifying level of ubiquity images of Justin Vernon from Bon Iver have attained in the world’s media: perhaps his pal Kanye West’s wife has become upset at being continually bumped from magazine covers in favour of Vernon’s beardy mush. There was talk of being pestered by fans: exemplifying this nerve-jangling state of affairs, the journalist witnessed a waitress tell him she loved his music while handing him his coffee. Then again, some people are just ill-equipped to cope with fame of any kind, and there was plenty of evidence of a man who has undergone some very real, heartrending distress since Bon Iver’s second album topped the US charts and catapulted him into arenas: panic attacks, anxiety, “mental stuff”, writer’s block, treatment for depression.

It’s hard to avoid the interpretation that this third album is a wilfully abstruse reaction to his experience of mainstream success. The sleeve and the credits look like something you might find attached to a disturbing bit of privately pressed outsider music: the former is covered in impenetrable symbols, the latter features namechecks for “tom sellick waterfall sandwich” “Mother Nourishment” and “SAD SAX OF SHIT”. The song titles come thick with leet, the symbol-based language beloved of internet gaming communities – and frequently used there to mock new arrivals – as if to defy anyone to actually say them out loud. Best of luck shouting for 00000 Million, 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ or indeed 666 ʇ next time Vernon arrives on a stage near you. “It’s not for broader appeal,” he sings, tellingly, on the latter.

Vernon’s voice is frequently mangled with Auto-Tune and other electronic effects until it’s unrecognisable, which seems telling as well, given that he’s expressed a desire to play to audiences who’ve “hopefully never heard of us”. This often renders the words he is singing incomprehensible without the aid of a lyric sheet; then again, even that doesn’t help much: “What I got is seen you trying, or take it down the old lanes round, fuckified, darling don’t make love, fight it, love, don’t fight it,” he sings on 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄. “Darling don’t a failure fright, time’s the raker, and I’ll rack it up, I’m unorphaned in our northern light, dedicoding [sic] every demon.” Whether this is some kind of stream-of-consciousness attempt to express indefinable emotions he felt during the “horribleness” that preceded the album’s making, or just a concerted effort to try to stop people interpreting his lyrics is an interesting point, although you have to say that if it’s the latter, it’s probably doomed to failure. You can almost hear messageboard discussions sparking into life, and indeed getting gradually nuttier as he sings.

22, A Million is obviously not the first confounding, how-do-you-like-me-now gesture offered up in rock history. Traditionally, the danger with that kind of thing is that it can look like haughty obscurity for obscurity’s sake, or, worse, wearyingly petulant. But for all its undoubted oddness, what’s striking about the album is how straightforwardly enjoyable it is. There are certainly a couple of points where the listener might wonder if what they’re party to isn’t just the sound of someone faffing about – the combination of mannered vocals and synthesized saxophone on ____45_____ outstays its welcome – but they’re vastly outweighted by moments of real beauty: the lovely, effortless melody and stunning harmonies on which the impenetrable lyrics of 29 #Strafford APTS hang; the unfettered loveliness of closer 00000 Million, a piano ballad lightly dusted with Auto-Tune and reverb until it sounds otherworldly; the point in 21 M♢♢N WATER when Vernon’s voice pierces through the murky ambient drift that occupies its opening minute like a shaft of light.

You’re frequently struck not by the sense of a man smugly obfuscating with the aid of a laptop, but alive to the idea that, if you have the imagination, it’s possible to make a singer-songwriter album that isn’t in thrall to styles minted in the late 60s and 70s, but sounds entirely like a product of its time: fractured by technology, shifting and changing so restlessly, it’s often hard to keep tabs on exactly what’s happening, as open to the sonic innovations at the cutting edge of modern R&B or dance music as David Bowie was when he decamped to the US to avail himself of the Philadelphia International sound. It draws on the past not as something to slavishly imitate, but as source material to be warped and altered. Plenty of artists have made music in the image of mid-70s Fleetwood Mac over recent years, but on 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄, their influence takes on a very 21st-century form. The backing vocals come via a YouTube video of Stevie Nicks singing while being made up for a Rolling Stone photoshoot, twisted until they are barely recognisable, and marooned over the kind of ferociously distorted beats you might have found on Kanye West’s Yeezus. Meanwhile, Vernon’s vocal morphs, the effects shifting it from muted and warm to a frantic chorus of harmonies. It’s fantastic.

It’s worth noting that 22, A Million isn’t quite the baffling non-sequitur it seems at first. For all the perception of Vernon as a doughty craftsman of earnest Americana, pouring his heart out in the backwoods, his music has always had what you might call its Kid A side. His third album represents the point where the thinking behind something like 2009’s Babys, an abstract assemblage of keening harmonies, icy electronics and crashing cymbals, takes over his music completely. Still, there’s no arguing that exactly what he’s driving at here is often hard to divine. But one of the points 22, A Million may be trying to make is that you don’t necessarily have to understand music to enjoy or be moved by it. If that’s the case, then it’s an unequivocal success.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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