Bon Iver - 22, A Million
I’m fighting with my computer, again. Forever caught in that downward spiral of repulsion and disgust – with myself, with the world around me. I return once more to the comfortable embrace of technology, blinded by the strength of its stranglehold. I want to scream at my computer or chuck it across the room, but I know such provocation would only prove futile, exasperating failure.
Feeling worthless and lost in digital excess has become my mantra. I sing it to myself in the shower and it circles my head in the seconds before my mind finally stops fighting and gives in to sleep. There is an illness here, an anxiety. It is all encapsulating and we are currently drowning in it, attempting to tread water but really only buying time. Are we too far gone to properly care? What are we waiting for? Redemption? Universal freedom? Could we even fathom a world without Facebook right now? Are these digital connections our body’s craving?
I push all of this nonsense to the back of my mind, for now, returning my focus to the senses. I close my eyes. Deprivation is everything and sometimes less really is more. Blinding my most useful sense I attempt to amplify the rest. My ears tune in to the new Bon Iver record, gently wailing in the distance. Ah yes, that’s what we are doing here. My skin reacts and gooseflesh covers my body. I focus quietly on his frequencies, as he has so desperately attuned to ours.
What I’m hearing is specially curated static for the white noise era. These are finely focused micro-songs, perfect for an attention span that is withering down to nothing. Bon Iver has finally gone cyborg, merging himself so completely with technology on this new record that it seems strange to think of his debut record, For Emma, Forever Ago, as an album so specifically devoid of digital input. On 22, A Million, Bon Iver’s voice whimpers and fails, caught in a technological miasma and wholly digitally integrated. But failure is painted in bold black all over this record, just like it cloaks this year of our Lord, 2016.
Terrorism, fear, technological failure and above all, uncertainty and fracture – 22, A Million speaks to our increasing anxieties. It is restless and unsure, oscillating wildly across the audio spectrum from pensive to ferocious without notice.
Following two fairly digestible folk-pop releases, the kind of cabin-bound white beardy stuff that now oversaturates the mainstream, Bon Iver loudly exits stage left, executing his swiftest, bravest maneuver yet. Almost completely gone from his latest record are those damned acoustic guitars, a practically dead instrument by 2016 music criticism standards. He was already thinning out the guitars on his previous record, an almost cheesy, 80s-sounding affair draped in cozy production and spectacular songwriting. In hindsight, 2011s Bon Iver, Bon Iver predicts much of his new record’s aesthetic. And in particular it is the focus on synthesizers in that record’s final moments that carries listeners through to this latest one almost seamlessly.
The glitch is technology’s body exerting weakness, quietly failing. And it is broken electronics that ooze from every surface on 22, A Million. The song titles are all vaporwave-esque nonsense, all codes, numbers and keys, as if decided via random text generator. The heavier songs thrash with wild digital distortion and the quitter songs are interrupted with bleeps and blops and playful digital fuckery.
Even on the album’s most folksy track – the brilliant “29 #Strafford APTS” – Bon Iver’s falsetto is rendered so much that it completely malfunctions under its own weight. The sound of failure so pronounced here in the album’s quietest moment, as the vocal ascends to the songs crescendo: “I hold the note you wrote and know / You’ve buried all your alimony butterflies.” It is without question one of the most powerful moments on the album both aesthetically and thematically. The digitised glitch of his voice and that familiar finger-picked acoustic guitar sounds like Bon Iver teleported to 2016 from 2007 – but something got broken and turned evil along the way. Lyrically, the line alludes to the pain involved with letting go of the past, something Bon Iver has focused on heavily for this release
Bon Iver has gone the way of so many others this year and surpassed expectation, combining analogue and digital pain to create something that’s wholly new and instantly timeless. 22, A Million sounds so very, very of its time, but it also sounds like an album that will likely age wonderfully (my first listen had me hearing comparisons to Kid A).
Like some of 2016’s best records – I’m talking about The Life of Pablo, Endless/Blonde, and particularly The Colour in Everything – genre is thrown completely out the window in favour of something sprawling that combines old styles with new ideologies of form. These albums are each having an open dialogue with the future and our past, engaging with our shrinking attention spans, our expectations and repetitions; but above all, they showcase the way we humans are learning to integrate with the digital world.