When listening to “29 #Strafford APTS,” I’m struck by the white space. The in-betweens have always been Justin Vernon’s specialty—what he chooses to include, when he includes it, and when he removes it. In this song, he plays with what isn’t heard, so we fill in the blanks of all that’s not given us as if we’re reading a book. Much of what we’re given serves only to spark the imagination, so that in moments of sparse instrumentation we’ve subconsciously carried a previous moment of beauty forward. Here, the simple pluck of a guitar. There, a warm piano, a choir of saxophones singing from a distant hill. They’re given to us in pieces and taken away in the same manner. When the verse is revisited, we remember the piano’s warbly refrain, the yearning call of the saxophones, and it elevates those quieter moments to something that feels an awful lot like transcendence.
I think of my dad’s hands when I listen to this song, how I used to hold one in two of mine, turning it over and over as I ignored the sermon at church. I marveled at the size of his fingernails, the muscles in his palms. I’m not sure how this memory entered into the song’s melody, except that it’s a part of my own past that carries me forward. What is it about adulthood that makes us afraid to interact with our parents like we’re still their children? “Sure as any living dream/It’s not all then what it seems/And the whole thing’s hauled away.”
Maybe it’s the state of my own fractured life that allows me to listen past the fractures in the composition of Bon Iver’s latest offering, 22, A Million, to see the transcendence hidden inside. Throughout the album, Vernon takes sounds that should be uncomfortable and places them into arrangements that overcome and overwhelm. I hear anxiety in the scratchy pulsing siren sound that starts the album off in “22 (OVER S∞∞N).” I hear it in his chipmunk voice singing “it might be over soon.” But when the guitar appears, like the first rays of morning light, I hear something else. The anxiety is unfolded, examined, and transformed. Encased in Vernon’s falsetto, trickles of piano notes, a swell of violins, a brief saxophone solo, the pulsing siren sound becomes a beautiful background ambience. The song coexists with its own anxiety, drawing peace from its fateful lyric, “it might be over soon.”
22, A Million is suffused with peace, even if it doesn’t sound that way on the outset. Listen enough, and behind the layers of laborious production the Bon Iver of For Emma, Forever Ago appears. The quiet spaces are still there, the surprising chord structures, the intense melancholy. The broken soundscape thrives on our memories of this younger Justin Vernon, the same way that its songs thrive on white space. We carry the younger Bon Iver into the new material, just as Vernon himself has, so that when we’re given glimpses of his old self through a soft riff on a banjo or a folksy chorus, we latch onto those fragments, allowing them to shape their surroundings.
We bring our own memories, too. Bon Iver’s music seems intent on creating space for just that. His lyrics can be tough to understand in their totality, but are more easily understood in small moments. Like in “666 ʇ,” when Vernon sings “No, that’s not how it’s s’posed to feel, oh no,” the lyric is elevated above those surrounding it simply because of its frankness. It’s fraught with unbearable yearning. I get it. I know what he means, if just for a moment. We all do. Suddenly I’m thinking about all the ways I’m supposed to feel and can’t: I should feel less doubt; I should let go of her; I should call my parents more, even when I’m worn out and wanting to be alone; I should feel grateful. In the wake of that lyric, the song’s tumbling drums and wandering bass line become like waves carrying it away from shore. Life whisks you away. It’s tough.
The album ends with “00000 Million,” a spare, gospel-like arrangement. It’s a drastic shift from the rest of the album. The bells and whistles are all gone, leaving us with Vernon, a piano, the quiet in between the phrases, and an arresting melody. It’s the closest we get to the old Bon Iver, and in that sense it feels like coming home.
I worry ‘bout shame, and I worry ‘bout a worn path
And I wander off, just to come back home
Turning to waltz, hold high in the lowlands
‘Cause the days have no numbers
It harms me, it harms me, it harms me like a lamb
I share the sentiment. Seems like wandering away from home is the only way to remind us of home’s importance. So I’m grateful for Bon Iver’s wandering, his constant search for peace, and all the ways he stumbles upon transcendence. I’m grateful for the companionship of his music as I go home myself. Maybe I’ll hold my dad’s hands like I used to.