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The Ghosts In Bon Iver’s Machine

Molly Lambert wrestles with ‘22, A Million’

During my first three listens to Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, I hunted in vain for a moth-hole of entry into this thickly knit, warm wool sweater of an album. My review sat blank and open on my desktop for days while I listened to the album repeatedly and tried to form coherent thoughts other than the steady stream of “sad, man” and “sad man.” Also, I came to it late, and when something is universally acclaimed, my first approach is always skepticism.

I recognized that the walls I was putting up had nothing to do with Auto-Tune and everything to do with me. They were about my own discomfort with earnest white male folk singers — that is, with any folk that doesn’t couch itself in irony and humor the way someone like Bob Dylan does. I can handle sad, earnest men in country and rock, but folk is hard. I deal with British folkies better than American, for the most part: A British accent can sometimes act like Bon Iver’s Vocaloid effect, providing just a layer of something that would stop me from touching the raw, painful emotional wounds. Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons don’t make me feel embarrassed to be alive, but James Taylor and Cat Stevens do. I’ve always loved Neil Young, but even Leonard Cohen took a long time for me to stop being embarrassed about the seriousness of poetry and realize that serious poetry can be the best. Singing makes us feel so exposed. Sometimes just listening to singing can make me feel just as exposed. Justin Vernon seems to share some of my own discomfort with the naked voice.

Then I reread Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson’s “The Infinity Diaries.” The six-part series describes her experience of moving to New York after high school, starring in a play, dating and falling in love (?) with a man who turns out to be disappointing, then getting stuck in a vortex of trying to figure out where it went wrong, or whether everything happened exactly as it was supposed to. She writes in a stream of consciousness that mixes in quotes and conversations, in an attempt to put inexpressible feelings like longing, nostalgia, love, and regret into words.

A million years ago, I had a boyfriend who was really into Will Oldham, whose music I had personally never gotten into. It was the “Prince” that had always held me back from Bonnie “Prince” Billy. I had decided it was a pretentious, affected thing to do back around 1998, when I first encountered Oldham’s music, and then never gave him a real chance. After the breakup, I was devastated, and I decided the only way to understand what my ex had been thinking was to listen to Will Oldham’s entire discography. I stopped steeling myself against the earnestness and found out that Oldham was actually really funny, and that I’d been misinformed all this time by a wrong first impression that I never followed up on. By the end of the summer, I’d stopped caring about the guy and learned to love Will Oldham, and to avoid reflexively not giving things a chance because I’ve already decided they’re not for me. I’m always relearning that last part.

I forgot that lesson yet again when I opened up this Bon Iver album and saw the track titles, whose names all have glyphs in them. I sighed and judged. But when I listened without prejudice, I stopped being critical of the techniques that sounded affected to me at first — the glitches, the tape warp, the warm analog sounds and fleeting samples — and let them be the organic patchwork they were meant to be. As much as I wanted to just drag Bon Iver and call him The Chainfolksters, I knew that was lazy, and once I let my guard down, I finally found my way into 22, A Million. I started to think of the album as a long Spalding Gray monologue that circles back around, embroidering on its own themes ad infinitum. This wasn’t foolproof — the mention of the Ace Hotel on “33 ‘GOD’” broke the spell by placing me in too recognizably specific a context, like the Father John Misty song about The Thirsty Crow. How am I supposed to take anyone seriously as a nature man who lives in creeks and forests when I am suddenly picturing them at a hipster boutique hotel or a bar that serves $12 whiskey drinks? Then I started thinking about Leonard Cohen again and singing “I remember you well at the Standard Hotel” to myself.

Electronic folk, sometimes called “folktronica” by nobody I’ve met in real life, is a large blanket that encompasses varied things like Four Tet, Beth Orton, and Avicii’s “Wake Me Up.” The folk-lyrical tradition encourages tangled threads of personal thoughts, and digital manipulation is a way to play with their frayed edges. In pushing the boundaries of folk music, Vernon is continuing in the tradition of The Incredible String Band, who took psychedelic drugs and cut folk music open and used its ribs to build a new Adamic language. Vernon’s lyrical phrasings are oblique, but they’re not meant to be the focal point. The psychedelic flourishes of the mixing — the virtual crackling — are not escapist, but internalist. It’s the sound of taking acid and spending three hours marveling at your own hands, thinking about your muscles and veins. The drums on “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠” sound like a hyperactive underwater heartbeat as Vernon experiments with the other type of acid, the Roland TB-303 kind. That song’s squelches and stomps are followed by the hymnlike “715 - CRΣΣKS,” where the vocoder effect makes it sound like a chorus of ghosts are singing along in slant harmonies. In “29 #Strafford APTS,” whenever Vernon’s voice is soaring most, a digital obfuscation comes in to block it, like a bird flying in front of the sun. “666 ʇ” builds and snowballs into a bank of drums. “21 M♢♢N WATER” is an unapologetically hippie-dippie crystal ship of contemplation.

There were multiple times listening to 22, A Million when I thought about its overall similarity to Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight,” which used drum machines and digital vocoder to capture the sound of isolation. “In the Air Tonight” was revolutionary in using extreme sleekness in place of the traditional roughness to portray the feeling of unreality that comes with dark, extreme emotions. As a drummer, Phil Collins saw nothing odd about placing the drum machine front and center. As a multi-instrumentalist, Vernon also sees no reason why any one element should dominate all the others. There’s plenty of space for voice, instruments, and experimental elements to peacefully coexist. Sometimes, listening to 22, A Million feels like watching a Robert Altman movie, taking in the overlapping naturalistic dialogue as one continuous stream of multiple thoughts.

The instrumental and digital elements combine into musical glossolalia, an attempt to transcend the boundaries of traditional words and sounds. Folk is so often oriented around traditionalism — even its psychedelic variants are now part of a long, rich history. And even folk music with samples and electronic sounds is hardly unpaved ground at this point. It’s not what Vernon does, though, as much as the way he does it. His electronic mille-feuille feels like the sound of someone searching, digging through crates and memories for snatches of truth. Auto-Tune was invented by a mining engineer. The logical outcome is that Vernon would eventually make use of it for his hypermodern mining for a heart of gold.

Between listens of 22, A Million, I was at a coffee shop that was playing David Bowie’s “Can You Hear Me?” — and that song’s vital sax part became the key that unlocked the Bon Iver album for me. The saxes snake in to say something, then slither into the back for a sax nap. It’s not overburdened with its big ideas. It flows, like the river that reappears in the lyrics.

Toward the end of 22, A Million, Vernon disrobes. He takes off the vocal effect that sheathes his falsetto like a robe for most of the album, and sings in a voice that is — if not totally, completely digitally unmediated — something close to his natural range. I’d never suggest that a falsetto can’t be someone’s real voice, even though it has “false” in its name. It’s just that, like Vernon’s friend and collaborator Kanye, I both understand the reasons for disguising one’s voice to express vulnerable sentiments and appreciate the rare moments when I get to hear them so nakedly expressed. Auto-Tune functions as musical sunglasses. It gives the wearer confidence and imparts a baseline of artificial coolness. So to listen to 22, A Million is to hear someone, like Kanye on 808s and Heartbreak, finding the horizon of artificiality, where it becomes something more than real — a supernaturally human sound, the sound of the inner soul. The last song on Bon Iver's album, “00000 Million,” is perfect. It sounds kind of like “Desperado” by The Eagles, and I mean that purely as a compliment.