Following the break up of his band and a relationship, Justin Vernon retreated to a secluded cabin in Wisconsin.
Over the course of a winter, Vernon wrote and recorded the bulk of “For Emma, Forever Ago” and released it in 2007 under the moniker Bon Iver. With raw instrumentation and a falsetto croon, Vernon shares his loneliness with almost unbearable intimacy. “For Emma” was widely loved and critically acclaimed.
Since Bon Iver’s debut, Vernon achieved unprecedented fame, success and respect for a folk artist. He appeared on Kanye West records, produced another well-received album, collaborated with alternative musicians and put together a music festival. But after all this, Vernon found himself lost and lonely on a Grecian island with a chorus repeating in his head, “This feeling might be over soon.” These would be the lyrics to the first single off his new album, “22, A Million.”
The differences between “For Emma” and “22, A Million” are jarring. Acoustic instruments are replaced with electronic. Vernon’s soft voice is now auto-tuned and processed through a vocoder. Samples, loops and audio manipulations of all kinds structure the album’s 10 brief songs. The one song that hearkens back to the acoustic singer-songwriting of “For Emma” is tweaked by technology in the end. “22, A Million,” however, is just as intimate. Here again, Vernon draws his listeners close into his loneliness, loss and search for meaning.
On the opening track, Vernon invites listeners to join him in cautious hope. Somberly he sings, “It might be over soon.” While Vernon is singing about a certain feeling of his, everyone who listens comes to wish for what they want to be over soon. (It’s sufficient to say that the song was released in the heat of this presidential election.) On “715 – CRΣΣKS,” Vernon’s voice is sonically split into several overlaid harmonies. By this feat of studio engineering, Vernon conjures us to a creek and under a low moon to contemplate love. Then, on “33 GOD,” Vernon quotes Psalm 22 (“Why are you so far from saving me?”) over soaring synthesizers and a booming bass. And amidst the big beats of the cryptically titled “666 ʇ,” Vernon confesses, “Still standing in the need of prayer … no, I don’t know the path.”
“22, A Million” is a record that tries and tests the limits of electronic instrumentation. At several moments, there are hiccups and breaks. Somehow this album is as unrefined as old acoustics recorded in a cabin. Throughout, Vernon sings — in falsetto or soulful bellow — lyrics that seem to be texted. His vocal meditations are as broken and disconnected as a conversation in tweets. Just like our popular discourse, neologisms abound. But by this medium, Bon Iver gets his listeners to ponder the things very close to the heart. “22, A Million” is an intimate experience for a digital age.
How do we maintain close relationships in a world mediated by electronics? Can we communicate our authentic selves through a keyboard, screen or tablet? These questions were at the heart of movie “Her” and the TV show “Black Mirror.” Justin Vernon seeks to answer these questions in his art. Some might argue that all the audio engineering obscures Vernon’s talent and true voice. However, I find that Vernon takes the instruments at his disposal and creates a closeness in and among those who hear him.
It is easy to bemoan and critique a culture that increasingly communicates with the latest technology. It is true, our technology creates and sustains distance. But a creative use of technology can serve to bring communities together—communities like churches. Like Justin Vernon, churches would do well to experiment with new instruments for communicating universal longing and love for God and neighbor.
The church can learn a lot from Bon Iver’s approach to music. At his live concerts, Vernon and company are always reinterpreting and rearranging old songs and new. There is a pliability to the music. Bon Iver continually tries new and odd instruments to reimagine songs. Occasionally, everything is stripped to a capella to find a different tone. Christians believe that the message of the gospel is the same for all time, but it must take on many expressions. Like a good song, the gospel must be creatively reinterpreted and reimagined. Christians just need to be willing to try new instruments.
Many fans of Bon Iver’s folk sound lamented the direction of “22, A Million.” This critique is the fate of anyone who tries something new. It is often the case that churches are rarely receptive to a change in sound. However, this album is an example of how new instruments can bring ancient things to new expression. What new tools can the church use to tell of a God who always tests the limits of expression?
Jon Nelson is the associate pastor of Ark and Dove Presbyterian Church in Odenton, Maryland. He is a lover of music, good stories, running, his wife and newborn son.