Review: 22, A Million//Bon Iver Is Back, Reminding Us All To Breathe

When we talk about music being life, we all have an understanding of what we mean. It’s a daydream, a drive with the windows down, and a soundtrack to our…whatever. It’s the same idea to everyone but takes a different form for individuals. Music is what’s inside of many of us. For me–Wilco is my heart and Zeppelin is my lungs. To beat and breathe is what all living things need. But we also need a filter, on many things (mostly our mouths) but especially on what we consume. Enter Justin Vernon.

Hua Hsu of The New Yorker wrote that “Vernon’s voice has become one of the most recognizable instruments of indie rock.” After spending a few days with 22, A Million, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve loved Vernon’s music, even as it took me a while to come around to For Emma, Forever Ago nine years ago (!!). Vernon acts as our filter (my liver?) to remind us to stop and think. His music is magical, majestic, illuminating, and enter whatever word you see fit and read everything people say about him: gorgeous, aching, spiritual, unique, wondrous. But most of all, his music acts as a pause–a pause to remember to feel our pulse and take a breath, that we are all, indeed, human. Vernon is that reminder to me. Not all music is as complex as his yet sounds so simple as a finished product. His music gives life to the dreams you never actualize. They’re stuck in that in between stage of your brain. It’s something you can’t quite grasp and something you can never let go. Lights will continue to wink, hair will still twirl, taxis always honk, and lovers will spoon the night away, while people go about their chosen day.

Vernon’s music does that to me. It makes me write like I have nothing to lose. It’s the kind of music that provokes me to write something more thoughtful than I have in the past (say, spilling thousands of words on twenty, thirty, forty year old records or new ones or a play by play). Maybe it’s the ambient air or the titles of the tracks this time around. This time around they are a jumble of letters, numbers, and symbols that eventually spell something out. I’m not sure they are supposed to mean something on 22, A Million. Some look cool, others make words like “Moon Water” and “Death Breast” and the others are just place holders for 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. It makes me think that titles don’t matter, which is, of course, the ultimate philosophy we’re all looking for: that it doesn’t matter what you call yourself even though words are just as strong as actions. Don’t be a huge pile of human garbage and be kind to others. Words can be ugly so Vernon made them into shapes instead.

On August 1st, 2011 I saw Bon Iver (Vernon’s band name) at the 930 Club in Washington, D.C. The Rosebuds opened and it was a night full of adjectives just like the lists above. The lights were covered in fog, the color was muted and shiny, and he had two microphones at his stand. One amplified his voice with no filters and the other might’ve been a garden hose mimicking a ProTools plug-in. The audience, naturally, was rapt and I was staring at the outline tattoo of Wisconsin peaking through his shirt collar. I can’t believe that was five years ago. Still, I can close my eyes and see it. I remember the day I heard Bon Iver (his second full-length) a week early that June (2011). My windows were open and full of that record. Then (and now) I live in a brain where I want everyone to hear something new at full volume, uninterrupted. Sit on the floor with it, next to the speakers, let it settle into you like it’s a lotion your skin can drink. Then take it for a walk and bring your journal. You’ll get carried away, just like I have here.

The instrumentation on 22, A Million is NEW! for Vernon but also so familiar that it is unmistakably a Bon Iver record. The personnel listening shows a lot of saxophone, including “Sad Sax Of Shit,” and three women of 22 listed on the credits (#killjoyorbust). (Vernon’s own credits, among many, also list “Maker” and Prophet. It’s a man’s man’s world out there.) It’s the saxophone that’s been computerized, filtered, stretched, and shrunk this time to push this putty of a record into new forms.

I don’t want to write too much about what 22, A Million sounds like because you know what a Justin Vernon record sounds like. It’s enchanting. Instead I’ll fill this blog post with meta-music writing, to remind myself that music writing can be whatever you want it to be. And I’ll spend the day revisiting Bon Iver records I haven’t heard in years. They’ll remind me to breathe, to pause, and to look out–for the neighbor, the customer, the children, for my lover, and for myself. Bon Iver is just the filter we could all use these days. To stop and think, you know, before you make a decision that impacts everyone.

22, A Million is out now on Jagjaguwar and Spotify.