Bon Iver’s ’22, A Million’ is a Shape-Shifting Dazzler

*This is a guest submission. The following piece does not reflect the opinion of KXSU.*

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Two minutes into listening to Bon Iver’s “8 (circle)” from his latest album release, 22, A Million, I thought to myself, “Did he just say what I thought he did? Did he just say, ‘I’m an estuary king?’” Except for ecologists, it seems like not many people have a word like “estuary” in their vocabularies, moreover understand what it means. Yet, Bon Iver nestles the word into thoughtfully-constructed lyricism, drawing the listener into what he deeply feels and knows. In 22, A Million, Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, shows a signature gift: his gorgeous lilting vocals and lyrical verisimilitude.

Anyone who lives in the Greater Seattle area lives in an estuary. The Puget Sound is a 19-inlet estuary, an area where saltwater and freshwater meet to feed land and ocean systems. It is the second largest estuary in the United States. I gamble to say that we are the estuary kings, queens, jesters, and knights of the Pacific Northwest. Our landform reveries mirror many of our landform realities: vast forests, mountain views, strong waters.

But here’s the spoiler: after some fact checking, I discovered I was wrong. The word is astuary, not estuary. As one Reddit user, esedward, writes,

“Perhaps Justin switched out the ‘estus’ (from the Latin aestus, or ‘tide’) for “aster” (Latin for stars). So an astuary could be the place where the stars meet Earth? Or something like that?”

Precisely. Vernon reveals the depths of his perception through bold re-imaginations of lyric and sound.

In 22, A Million, a complex landscape unfolds. The listener traverses a musical medley founded on a mixture of Vernon’s classic hymnal styles and the experimental. While this may be his most diverse collection yet, there is a thoughtful restrain employed in each piece that kaleidoscopically unfolds within itself. With esoteric titles like “715 – CRΣΣKS” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠,” a mysticism holds the tracks together like prayer flags on string, existing independently yet held collectively. Bon Iver’s 22, A Million is an album to be explored again and again; one that might sound different between first listen and a revisit. The album is timeless in its shape-shifting abilities, landing differently on each play back, like a photograph you come back to and notice different details in every time.

“22 (OVER S∞∞N)” opens with metronome piano notes, a saxophone groove, and a question: “Where are you going to look for confirmation?” Vernon’s reflective lyricism continues into the third track, an electronic dialogue, beginning with, “Down along the creek/I remember something/Her, the heron hurried away,” cutting a landscape for the cerebral listener, imprinted with pregnant pauses for the visceral one. Later, the dark thumps and chimes of “21 M♢♢N WATER” hit like cold splashes of water on skin warming under the sun. The track is refreshing; its jutting edges melting into surrounding tracks, “666 ʇ” and “8 (circle),” foreshadowing and receiving elements of each with artful subtlety. Vernon’s vocals unfurl into sonic canopies showcasing the lushness of his low notes and exalting falsetto. In his five-year hiatus, Bon Iver is letting us witness a diamond he has harvested on which he continues to carve faces. The album may be set to join the ranks of Frank Ocean’s Boys Don’t Cry, also one that is experimental, fluid, and riveting in its shards of intensity.

There is something else, though, that pulled me into each song. There is something different about the way Vernon’s voice has returned to us after so many years. There is a heaviness—cavernous, authentic soulfulness. A friend once told me that when artists experience profound change or pain, you can hear it in their voices. My gut feeling was confirmed later, when I read in a Consequence of Sound article that Vernon was being treated for anxiety and depression prior to the album’s creation. Embodied pain may explain why, similarly, Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” and Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” are implacably magnetic and provocative.

Vernon has crafted his latest collection intelligently, matching artistic knowledge to sharp intuition. The listener is immersed in fluid narratives reminiscent of the soul structures and vibrational aesthetics of jazz, Celtic harmonies, and classical Indian ghazals. Vernon tiles these sounds and overlays them with synth, electronica, and bass in an exploratory journey. In 22, A Million, each song guides the collective like rivers meeting to nourish the complex terrain of land, ocean, and outer space. It’s astuarine.

Listen to it here: iTunes | Spotify | Amazon Music


JASLEENA GREWAL | Guest Writer

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