Bon Iver, (a French phrase for “Good winter”) is an American indie folk band founded in 2007 by Wisconsin native, Justin Vernon. Vernon recorded his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago independently in July of 2007 in a small cabin in mid-west Wisconsin, where he spent three months tucked away in the woods of Fall Creek, WI, home to his DIY recording studio, self-named “April Base”.
A few short years after his first album release under the new name Bon Iver, Justin unexpectedly won the 2012 Grammy Awards for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album for his album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
Since then, Justin has reached far above and beyond he beleived he would ever reach within his music career. Word spread like wildfire that he and rapper Kanye West were working together on new material. West is a public figure who conspiracy theorists strongly believe is apart of the lluminati, among many other iconic celebrities within the entertainment industry. We’ll get back to that subject later. Watch Vernon and West’s most recent collaboration, here.
Time seemed to have sped up and passed Justin as he had became more and more busy, yet no new Bon Iver album was to be seen or heard of. It has been nearly five years since Justin has released a full-length since Bon Iver, Bon Iver. So naturally, when the news finally leaked of his 2016 record, fans were ecstatic. On August 12, 2016, Justin was scheduled to perform a set list of songs from his new album at Eaux Claires, a music festival he brought to life, hosted in the city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin (2017 dates and pre-sale tickets available here).
I had the opportunity to observe his performance that Friday night. It had been raining most of the day, which caused me to spend a majority of my time under the Lagunitas IPA beer tent and the Visit Eau Claire streamliner talking with my friends from The Millenium. Oddly enough, just before Bon Iver was scheduled to perform, it had completely stopped raining. The night had turned from a slightly miserable experience to a beautiful and calm atmosphere as fans eagerly and quietly waiting for bodies to appear on the bare stage.
It was difficult not to notice the array of hieroglyphic-styled symbols shown on the LED background panels as they lit up our faces. I thought nothing of it. Suddenly, a roar of cheering interrupted my conversation with a friend, causing us both to steer our attention to a man walking out onto the middle of the stage.
Wearing a dark grey zip-up sweatshirt, a blue bandanna tied around his neck and an old school Minnesota Timberwolves cap covering unkempt hair, Justin Vernon sat down on a small bench in front of a Prophet-6. His laptop perched atop and microphone hiding his face, it was difficult to get a satisfied visual. None-the-less, I sat back and enjoyed his electronically layered harmonies of falsetto vocals, paired with unusual sounding instruments. His new material was familiar to that of Coldplay, particularly drawing similarities to their track, Midnight.
Watch Bon Iver’s full concert performance here.
Although, Vernon’s songs lacked the expected structure of what the industry holds music to. The intros were lengthy, often times could not decipher the chorus, and the perfrmances ended unexpectedly. It was refreshing. To conclude the concert, Justin was very thankful of the festival goers who paid $100+ to be in his presence and in return offered his yet-to-be-released album, 22, A Million for a gracious five dollars.
I returned home to the nine to five job waiting for me. A few days after the festival, a friend and Eau Claire resident added this photo on facebook. Intrigued, I decided to do some researching. The front page of the Bon Iver website flashes similar symbols in a way where one might suggest an attempt of subliminal messaging. Scroll down, and you’ll see merchandise available for purchase featuring the same questionable images. I search for his album art to find a conglomeration of even more questionable black and white symbols with what looks like to be a modified square yin & yang sign, placed in the middle of the art work.
The song titles, also on the side of strange, each including particular numbers.
22, A Million Track List:
1. 22 (OVER S∞∞N)
2. 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄
3. 715 – CR∑∑KS
4. 33 “GOD”
5. 29 #Strafford APTS
6. 666 ʇ
7. 21 M◊◊N WATER
8. 8 (circle)
10. 00000 Million
Many music publications quoted a press release from Justin’s long-time friend, Trever Hagen on August 1, 2016 that states his new album is “part love letter, part final resting place of two decades of searching for self-understanding like a religion. And the inner-resolution of maybe never finding that understanding.”
That only instilled more questions inside of me. What does he believe in? What kind of experiences has he had? Is he mentally and emotionally stable? Has the desensitizing life of a touring musician put him in a difficult place? I still had questions, so I Googled Trever’s quote and to my surprise found this:
“Ever since the door swung shut on that north woods cabin, we all felt like Justin entered a future we had imagined as kids. It was an obsessive, simple dream we shared as teenagers growing up in Wisconsin: just music, always.”
“When your voice is responded to in the world’s cosmic conversation, when your words and sounds travel to the depths of strangers’ souls, life’s dream can carry you forward at a pace you had never traveled at before. The collective excitement pushes your foot to the gas because isn’t this the only thing to do? Isn’t this exactly what we had imagined or hoped? It became too much to handle for Justin. Something was left behind in such a mad dash over the course of these recent years. The music stopped giving back. The acceleration, repetition and exposure transformed that coveted dream into what felt like a mind-numbing theme park. What is this for? What are we even trying to accomplish here? The teenage fantasy, that shared memory of the future, was now in disguise. A shapeless figure, present but unrecognizable.
This spectacular upheaval of life after these albums provoked an inner storm, a mental sickness of anxiety for Justin. Of course it did. The dream had taken on its own life. It all came to a head on an empty Atlantic beach. I bore witness to my best friend crying in my arms, lost in a world of confusion and removal. Justin could barely even talk. It was only days before, on a misguided solo trip to an island off the coast of Greece, that he had recorded the opening words of 22, A Million, “It might be over soon”, into a portable sampler. The forecast that begins this next Bon Iver undertaking is a reminder of our fragile existence. How when everything appears stable, it may crumble and fall through our fingers. How do we hold on to what is important? How do we make sense of the events that rip us apart? What choices do we have and how do we make them? It was the beginning of an unwinding of an immense knot inside. When confronted with daemons one must hold up the mirror in order to see the other side. For Justin, that begins with 22.
22 stands for Justin. The number’s recurrence in his life has become a meaningful pattern through encounter and recognition. A mile marker, a jersey number, a bill total…A Million is the rest of that world: the millions of people who we will never know, the infinite and endless…When Justin sings, “I’m still standing in the need of prayer” he begs the question of what’s worth worshipping, or rather, what is possible to worship. If music is a sacred form of discovering, knowing and being, then Bon Iver’s albums are totems to that faith.
The ten songs of 22, A Million are a collection of sacred moments, love’s torment and salvation, contexts of intense memories, signs that you can pin meaning onto or disregard as coincidence. If Bon Iver, Bon Iver built a habitat rooted in physical spaces, then 22, A Million is the letting go of that attachment to a place. “I’m taking deeper consideration in another kind of place–our friendships and connections to other people.” Justin proclaims this shift in ’33 “GOD”’: “These will just be places to me now”. Rather than places we encounter a collection of numerical relationships: binary code, mystic ages, Bible chapters, math-logic, repeating infinities. Inside these numbers are a sonic distillation of imagery from the past years of turbulence and how to recover.” (Read the full piece here.)
I reached beyond the answer I was looking for, yet full of even more questions. It is clear Justin has a deep connection; a higher purpose and understanding. Most people believe career success is the last piece to the puzzle, yet Justin is determined to find what his life is meant for beyond the stage and spot lights.
As for his album art, I would guess it could be Justin daring to look into the face of what has been haunting him, guiding him, or perhaps both; exploiting the numbers and symbols known to have powerful ancient meanings and experimenting with their effects on his listeners.
I can relate to Justin on this level, as the number 29 to me is just as he describes the number 22 in his life. 29 shows itself to me everywhere I go. Some of my friends believe it and have seen it follow me first hand. Others think i’m simply looking for it, there for I see it more often. Signs range from license plate, an address, a food ticket order number or an “inspected by” tag on the inside of a new pair of shoes, I could go on. Until the answer becomes clear to me, I will continue to follow Justin’s adventure closely.
Update 9/4/2016: In an interview with The Current, Bon Iver explains his songs on a personal level. Read here.
Check out Bon Iver’s so-far-released tracks below.
Bon Iver – 22 (OVER S∞∞N)
“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”