Partway through Bon Iver’s latest album, a pitch-shifted voice booms over top of a noisy clamor. “Why are you so far from saving me?” the voice says, quoting Psalm 22. It repeats.
22, A Million is a dizzying, distracting, and entropic mess at most points throughout its 10 songs. Justin Vernon, the creative force of the band, takes on the role of sonic collagist, making extensive use of sampling and vocal processors in addition to layering an entire band of saxophonists on top of guitars, pianos, and the occasional banjo. His characteristic falsetto is in the mix, but it often gets lost and obscured by digitized brush strokes. Oh, and the album artwork is covered in different runes, blending together images from various contexts, traditions, and beliefs.
So what’s going on here?
Vernon recently sat down with The New York Times for an interview in which he explained the title. “22,” he said, is meant to represent himself, or the tangible, while “a million” is meant to be an abstract and infinite idea. The album begins with “22” and ends with “a million,” leaving a lot of room for exploration in between.
Lyrically, this room gets explored through touchstones and impressions rather than narrative or metaphor. If you’re looking for any condensable statement as to what any of these songs are “about,” you are bound to come up short. There are hints—a Scripture quote here, a locational reference there—that seem to offer clues as to a grander narrative, but as soon as something seems concrete it vaporizes into obscurity.
Given the framework of the finite and infinite, the varied and copy/paste approach to the music begins to makes sense. As a whole, the album is an artistic summation of anxiety, yearning, distraction, triumph, and the various ways people work through all of these. It mashes together different contexts and beliefs that people use to make sense of both the finite and the infinite; fittingly; it is messy, and occasional strong language adds to the discord. When we hear the pleas of Psalm 22 in this context, the album has already worked to recreate a modern environment that is representative of the dissonance that inspires the question: “Why are you so far from saving me?”
For all of its squall and variety, 22, A Million ends quietly and plainly. The song “00000 Million,” sounds like a hymn. It features only Vernon and a piano reflecting on all that is happened since the finite tangibility of the first track. It’s a track that answers the confusion of the rest of the album with surrender to transcendence. It’s as if the confusion and crisis in verse 1 of Psalm 22 is met by the comfort and offering in Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil.” (Jagjaguwar Records)