Justin Vernon’s latest opus begs to be deciphered – we dig deep into the meaning behind the lyrics, the samples, and those weird numbers
The tracklisting to 22, A Million looks a bit like a note the Zodiac Killer might have left. On first listen, the album itself feels similarly impenetrable – the words are there, they’re just obscured by layers of AutoTune, samples, and drum machines. Even when you hear them clearly, there are a thousand possible meanings. Or perhaps none at all.
But while Bon Iver’s new album may be designed to obfuscate, there’s an intimacy there too. From the beautiful opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” to closing track “00000 Million”, he beckons you in and holds you at arm’s length all at once.
When Bon Iver perform the album live in the courtyard of Berlin’s Michelberger hotel, the quiet moments are interrupted by a rustling sound. The hotel’s decorative white spheres, complete with paper tassels, are catching the wind. Luckily, it just adds to the atmosphere Vernon and his band have so exquisitely crafted. “The wind is like, part of it,” he tells the crowd, though the AutoTune on his mic is still on, so his words come out like a melody. As the band members switch, sometimes mid-song, between saxophone, percussion, and synths, it becomes clear just how many elements have been poured into each track. The album is saturated with sounds, having long since evolved from the acoustic minimalism of For Emma, Forever Ago.
Given that there very nearly wasn’t an album all (more of that later), 22, A Million feels at times like the result of a creative brainstorm, as the words and melody tumble out seemingly unfiltered. Other times, such as in the a cappella “715 - CR∑∑KS”, it’s restrained and contemplative.
There’s a lot to dissect within the album’s ten songs, so we’ve broken it down into a few key themes.
The album’s lyrics are streams of consciousness; skittish fragments of thoughts and memories, convulsing into each other. “Sent your sister home in a cab / Said I woulda walked across any thousand lands / no / not really if you can’t,” Justin Vernon sings in “33 ‘God’”, which briefly grapples with religion (with as much skepticism as those quotation marks suggest) before breaking off into other realms, and which never sharpens its focus onto anything tangible. There’s a palpable anger in some of the words too, though towards whom it’s never clear. At the end of “715 - CR∑∑KS”, he repeats almost the same line three times, each one becoming more bitter. “Turn around you’re my A team / Turn around now you’re my A team / God damn turn around now you’re my A team.”
Vernon’s move towards synthetic sounds is bolstered by a handful of perfectly judged samples. They never take over the song, nor are they used as a lazy alternative to coming up with a melody (i.e. Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling”, which is barely a song if you take out Etta James’s “Something Got A Hold On Me”). Instead they just linger underneath, sometimes clear, sometimes distorted or barely noticeable. “33 ‘God’” alone has five – Sharon Van Etten’s “D Sharp G”, Paolo Nutini’s “Iron Sky”, country group The Browns’ “Morning”, Lonnie Holley’s “All Rendered Truth”, and a spoken word clip from Psalm 22. Blink and you’ll miss most of them. Irish folk songwriter Fionn Regan’s “Abacus” turns up in “00000 Million”, while echoes of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over” add gospel vibes to “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”.
THE FIVE-YEAR WAIT
The largely unwanted fame his previous two albums afforded him almost paralysed Justin Vernon. The five years between his self-titled second album and 22, A Million were riddled with self-doubt, creative struggles and depression. “This spectacular upheaval of life after these albums provoked an inner storm,” wrote Vernon’s friend Trevor Hagen in a press release, “a mental sickness of anxiety for Justin. Of course it did. The dream had taken on its own life. It all came to a head on an empty Atlantic beach. I bore witness to my best friend crying in my arms, lost in a world of confusion and removal. Justin could barely even talk.”
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Vernon put the experience plainly. “It was not good. It was bad, bad, bad and then really bad, for a long time. I’d say I was having very bad days for about a year and a half.” The album’s opening line, “It might be over soon,” was recorded on a disastrous trip to the Greek island of Santorini, where he found himself humming the phrase to try and stave off panic attacks. The rest of the album blossomed from there, in spite of his self-doubt, and because of it too.
It was by accident, or perhaps serendipity, that 22, A Million’s numbers theme came about. After recording the line “It might be over soon”, Vernon sang some improvisation into his synthesizer: “when you chopped up part of the sample it sounded like it was ‘two, two,’ and 22 is my favorite number,” he told a group of 26 journalists recently, having opted for one mass discussion to promote the album, rather than hundreds of 15-minute interviews. “I’ve always thought that it reminded me of a duality, like a paradox. So that was kind of the beginning of that. And really it was still months until I had any other song ideas, so it was really annoying to have to listen to those 11 seconds of sampled music for that amount of time, but that’s when I figured out that the album was going to be numbers, and 22 is my thing, and it kind of grew from there.” In the album’s title, then, the 22 is Vernon, while the million represents the rest of the world. And the significance of the album’s other numbers? He’ll probably never tell us.