Fade Into the Machine: Bon Iver’s ’22, A Million’

Bon Iver's 22, A Million may be the first album that, truly, should be dedicated to Big Digital if not artificial intelligence.
Bon Iver
22, A Million

22, A Million may be the first album that, truly, should be dedicated to Big Digital if not artificial intelligence. Dear Google DeepMind: this is for you. Love, Justin. Moving through neuron woods behind Justin Vernon’s voice, you might sense the breathing imperfection of a young platform unable to clearly articulate what it thinks or how to get past the question of what it means to think.

I mean that as a compliment.

From a common art-historical point of view, 22, A Million is the fruition of Bon Iver’s self-titled second full-length and, perhaps, his collaborations with Kanye West. Filled with synthesizers, samplers and sequencers, recalling mainly the late ’70s and ’80s — hear the bubbling chirps and thundering drum fills (very Phil Collins!) in “666” — the album sounds like Peter Gabriel and the Beach Boys channeled through West and Radiohead, led by an at-times replicate Peter Cetera voice.

“How far he’s come from For Emma, Forever Ago!” Well, yes, but in the way any album can be so devastating and radical that it erases what came before it, 22, A Million obsolesces For Emma, Forever Ago and its sweetly fragile and often boring songs. All that remains is Vernon’s gift for mood.

It’s a finely tuned gift, holding together the transition from “21 M◊◊N WATER” to “8 (circle)”, which somehow works despite the mashup of error-signals, sax cries, someone breaking a metal case down the hall, and the soft insurgence of those evangelical synths. But what’s truly remarkable is the yes / no achieved here, and to me, this presence and absence that feels so right at this moment in time.

Fraudulence. That’s the word. What Vernon’s new album exudes is digital-era fraudulence, the tentative, anxious sense of not-being while standing someplace physical, be it a moonlit lake or a Wal-Mart. Does either matter, do you matter, if you’re not putting it on Snapchat?

The album itself isn’t fraudulent; the use of digital technology doesn’t make the album inauthentic or not-real or not-good. Instead of authenticity, let’s talk about commitment. Here’s an album, start to finish, in which Vernon’s pastoral purity sounds trapped within a machine but is resigned to staying there. Unlike the celebratory, fierce transition on West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from “Lost in the World” — which sampled if not built a house from Bon Iver’s “Woods” — to the propulsive world-beat and Gil Scott-Heron’s scathing sermon in the closer, “Who Will Survive in America?”, here, on 22, A Million, there’s no out. So Vernon seems determined to hear what can be done, without an end goal. That is the integrity of the album’s commitment.

What it doubts is truth. Not just, like a young AI, its own ability to articulate truth, but that a truth exists to be articulated.

I find it compelling that while the critical takes on 22, A Million bring up, one way or another, alienation, over on Twitter there was a “moment” in which listeners described “all the feels” the album was causing. It’s a cold record, isn’t it? The high-end distortion, the crunchy clipping, the bird-like wee-ha! on “10 d E A T h b R E a s T”, the flatulent drums just before “33 GOD” kicks in — all of it amounts to a normalized, digital chill, so swiftly strong that when you hear the unmolested piano that begins “33 GOD”, three songs into the album, its warmth sounds foreign.

What is this cold emotion?

Grief runs through this album, and maybe it’s grief over the situation we’ve created for ourselves, a situation in which a career politician is the “lesser of two evils” and democracy is a sham, a society in which every public word, political or not, seems crafted to sell a product, and in which the layers keep being peeled back without revealing anything more genuine than narcissism, hate, and money. “No, I don’t know the path,” Vernon sings, “or what kind of pith I’ve amassed.” Pith: essence. And what do you amass? Wealth.

For all our abundance of technology and culture — here, the music; the squeals, the detourned samples fizzing out, the human breath in the clarinet and the whomp of highly processed synths — 22, A Million considers the possibility that we’re getting smaller, amassing only the material but pretending its spiritual, receding into the machine, living by lies, living by the spectacle.

In a chapter of his book Present Shock, the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff connects the compression of time in contemporary America to the insatiable consumerism that expects immediate reward, and in one perfect moment, he describes, perhaps, the cost of this. “[T]he less tangible and more digital our music… becomes, the less sharable and open source it is rendered.” Ghosting ourselves into the machine, you might wonder if the same can be said of us.

That’s why, here at what might be the final turn, 22, A Million is a love song, a plea. (What is love, if not mood?) Its hope is that the “false” with which we’ve usually equated the mechanical, now the digital, can become true. It makes no claim of knowing for sure. For all of the glitching, pure sounds interrupted by replications of crinkled magnetic tape or a bad patch cable, and distorted percussion tracks, there is Vernon’s voice, multi-tracked, Cetera-like, wistful, earnest, a very young man with enormous wings. That voice carries almost every song, the most distinct source of rhythm and phrasing on drum-less songs like “715-CR∑∑KS” and “29 #Stratfford APTS”, but it is rarely if ever immune to digital modification. What is love, if not commitment?

“Overwinding,” Rushkoff calls the compression of time, “the effort to squish really big timescales into much smaller or nonexistent ones.” His examples concern work, media, economics, even reading. But overwinding is also what art can do, sometimes what it must do: take an era of history and all of its loose wires and condense it into a little more than half an hour, all so it can show us where we are now.