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Somewhere Between 22 & A Million Thoughts

October 14, 2016

written by Erin Diaz

I don't understand it.

That's the phrase that came to mind as I listened to "22 (Over Soon)", the first song on Bon Iver's new album 22, A Million. After eagerly pressing play on the opening track, my enthusiastic attitude towards listening to this album slowly turned into confusion, and then frustration. I wanted to get it - to understand. And in this quick moment, I felt as though I couldn't.

After listening to and appreciating Justin Vernon and his band known as Bon Iver for years, I found myself having high (possibly unreachable) expectations for 22, A Million. The band's albums For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) and Bon Iver (2011) both intrigued and made sense to me as I listened from beginning to end. With 22, A Million, I had to dig a little deeper.

It's easy to hear an album like 22, A Million and feel the necessity for instant connection. While this was not something I experienced from listening to the first half of the album, this does not mean that I couldn’t relate to it by the end. Instead, it means that the album must be peered into like a pair of eyes that mean the most to you - it must be treated gently for the fragile soul that it is, and it must be preserved and discussed in order to relate to it. An album of this weight should be pulled apart and examined and considered.

The first thing that can be said about this album is that Justin Vernon is not afraid of experimentation - the album takes a drastic turn from what his other albums sound like. The first five seconds of "22 (Over Soon)" sound like a buzz - a constant, never-ending buzz that you cannot push away from your mind, no matter how much you want it to leave. Instead of allowing the buzz to be pushed away, Vernon manipulates it and adds to it, changing its value and casting it to the background along with other soft sounds that come along with it, causing only his voice to be noticed and heard as he repeats "It might be over soon".

These five words are repeated seven times throughout "22, Over Soon", each time sounding completely different from the time before. This phrase seems to be the theme of the album - a feeling of uneasiness and almost a bit of anxiety is threaded through each song with perfection. It feels as though the listener is hanging onto every word Vernon sings, waiting for what sound or word will come next. Everything that the listener feels can be tied into the five aforementioned words - "it might be over soon". The anxiety and uneasiness that can come with the ending of something is deeply transfused into every song on 22, A Million.

From the beginning to the end of the album, Vernon expresses this same uneasiness. In the album's closing song "00000 Million", he repeats the words "worry" and "wander" in regard to time and days. Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic remarks that "00000 Million" is a "melody that sounds inspired by American folk standards—hints of “Kumbaya,” maybe—while delivering some of the most legible lyrics of his career, reflections on straying from the obvious path in life." Straying, worrying and wander are all words that reverberate out of this album with strength.

When it comes to understanding the album, as a listener I feel as though I've barely scratched the surface. While this could be looked at as a negative listening experience, it is instead one that can also be looked at as a growing experience. This album requires an eager listener to not just take it at face value - instead, it must be searched.

And as a believer in Bon Iver and his honest yet strangely ambiguous lyrics, this is what I'll do - I'll continue to search this album with the belief that there could be great value in what I find.