Exploring the bold new language of Bon Iver's '22, A Million'

Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon keeps his head in the clouds. (Photo: Cameron Wittig & Crystal Quinn)

Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon keeps his head in the clouds. (Photo: Cameron Wittig & Crystal Quinn) Cameron Witting & Crystal Quinn

Justin Vernon is determined to find a different way forward.

The leader of Bon Iver experienced creative fatigue following the extensive tours in support of 2011’s Grammy-winning album Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and he says personal burnout plagued the circuitous process of writing the highly anticipated follow-up.

Five years later, that new record, 22, A Million, is finally set to be released on September 30. Rather than settle into the music-industry routine of monotonous interviews, Vernon instead hosted 27 journalists from around the world (including City Pages) at a listening party for the new record in the soon-to-open Oxbow Hotel in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. That was followed by an informal press conference where, over the course of nearly two hours, the 35-year-old musician candidly opened up about his new songs — including the inspirations, frustrations, and innovations that went into them.

In a generous but unconventional marketing move, we were invited to a city that’s vital to the essence of Bon Iver’s work. The 10 emotional, adventurous songs of 22, A Million have deep creative roots in Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley, which is likely why Vernon premiered them live at his Eaux Claires festival last month. The intimate evening at the Oxbow allowed us to hear the studio version of the new LP, as well as talk directly with the man who struggled so mightily to bring it to life.

Samples, Symbols, and a New Sound

“This time, we went looking for different kinds of sparks,” Vernon said of 22, A Million’s genesis last Friday at the Oxbow. “Over the course of the last few years, just putting these moments together and seeing how they coexist... if it felt new to me, then that made me excited.”

The record is filled with bold, experimental sonic fragments that fitfully coalesce into an engrossing artistic statement. It also represents a radical departure from Vernon’s folksier, acoustic-laden roots. That shift in tone is due in large part to his reliance on the OP-1, a portable MPC synthesizer that can capture samples on the fly.

“You can be sitting around anywhere and sample the radio, or breathing, and you can make a song out of it,” Vernon, a frequent collaborator of sample-happy rapper/producer Kanye West, explained. “Once I had enough of that going on, it didn’t seem as obvious to me to pick up the acoustic guitar as often. I wanted to keep a new language going.”

That manner of communication is conveyed musically through textured, fragmented beats, damaged, imperfect sonic bursts, and brief, surprising samples ranging from Mahalia Jackson (“22, Over Soon”), Paolo Nutini (“33 (God)”), Fionn Regan (“100000 (A Million),” and an uncredited sample of Stevie Nicks (“10 (Death Breast)”). It’s also expressed through the album’s symbolic cover art (created by New York-based artist Eric Timothy Carlson, who also designed the logo for regional supergroup Gayngs) and cryptic song titles.

“It was nice to have a symbol,” Vernon said of Carlson’s Gayngs sign. “So we were like, ‘This time, let’s have a shitload of symbols.’”

About Those Titles

The album title references Vernon’s favorite number, 22 (which he describes as inherently paradoxical), while “A Million” represents the unknown other, the uncountable masses.

That personal symbolism is present on the album’s lead-off track, “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” a song that arrived to Vernon during a lonely vacation.

“Don’t go to the Greek islands, off-season, by yourself,” he warned. “I was trying to find myself. I did not. And I was humming to myself, ‘It might be over soon,’ like this feeling might be over.”

That phrase illuminates the duality that courses throughout the record, serving as both an exultation of relief that an unpleasant experience will shortly come to an end, and a wistful lament that something is finishing before you are ready to move on.

Rather than serving as inscrutable codes that need to be deciphered, the quirky song titles — e.g. “____45_____” and “715 – CR∑∑KS,” which references Eau Claire’s area code — exist merely to serve the unique parlance of 22, A Million, another extension of Vernon’s refusal to bow to convention.

Music As a Mirror

Veronon’s 22, A Million is a profound artistic statement, but it’s also a deliberate nod to his beloved hometown, which is located about 90 miles east of the Twin Cities.

“You go around the world and you see so many great places, and I just know this place so well,” Vernon said of Eau Claire, population 67,778. “Most of this stuff that we do is cultural — music, and art, and expression. It just feels really good to have that be part of your job, to be part of the apparatus, the mirror of our little culture here.”

That sense of community is present in every aspect of Vernon’s career — from the 2007 Bon Iver debut that famously emerged from a snowy cabin, to the world-class hometown music festival he co-curates, to the April Base recording studio he operates, to the boutique hotel/restaurant he’s opening with friends. And without the help of friends, 22, A Million might have been scrapped.

“I almost quit on it. In January of this year, I kind of hung the album up, because it had just become kind of convoluted,” Vernon admitted. “There’s a lot of stuff going on, it’s very dense. I was sort of tired of it, and tired of myself, like, ‘Why are you trying so hard?’ And my friend [Twin Cities producer] Ryan Olson just kind of slapped me, and he’s like, ‘nuh-uh.’ And he basically sat next to me and virtually held my hand through the entire process of finishing the album. That’s my favorite part of the album — that moment, the last six months of him just coming and picking his friend up.”

Vernon has realized, as we all eventually do, that time is indeed fleeting, and we must make the most of the days and opportunities presented to us. After all, it might be over soon. 

“I’ve become more and more aware about how minute our existences are,” Vernon said. “But it’s also really good to remember that we’re in a room right now, talking about music. And that is both ridiculous and amazing. It’s so unnecessary, and so necessary.”