Thursday 22 February 2018

Bon Iver, Wisconsin's one in a Million

'I don't know the path,' sings the brilliant Bon Iver on his new album 22, A Million. Mad, bad or radical? Our reporter goes for the latter

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver performs on the Jimmy Fallon show last month
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver performs on the Jimmy Fallon show last month
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Kodaline's Steve Garrigan echoed the thoughts of many a discerning music lover when he said on the Twitter machine from Los Angeles last week: ''Well the new @boniver album is amazing.'' And hirsute visionary Justin Vernon's third - and five-beard-scratching-years in the making - album as Bon Iver, 22, A Million, is just that, amazing! It's a kind of space-age-y experimental amazing, too.

And before we start, this occasionally bonkers album (21 MOON WATER, 33 God and 00000 Million chief among them in their beautiful bonkerness) is light years away, and in another way close enough to, what Rolling Stone magazine called "the forlorn indie folk" of Bon Iver's summer 2007 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago.

But first, a little context...

As Jeremy Gordon succinctly wrote in Spin magazine last month: 'Halfway through Obama's first presidency, the mainstream tilted in such a way it seemed that indie music - that long-beloved genre of fops and sensitives - was actually and authentically reaching the masses.

Arcade Fire canonised middle- class anguish and were rewarded with a Grammy for Album of the Year; Vampire Weekend's sophomore record debuted at No.1 in the Billboard charts. And then there was the absurd little moment where Bon Iver's Justin Vernon was deemed famous enough to be mocked by Justin Timberlake on live TV, the unofficial Prince of Pop donning a slick bald-piece to attack the crime of appearing delicate.

Emotional misdemeanour or not, delicate is certainly deeply embedded in the DNA of the 35-year-old from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Justin is a man literally sometimes alone in his field, alone with his delicate otherness, his inarguable, aching vulnerability.

The aforesaid aching vulnerability is outlined on 666 Upside Down Cross when he sings, "I don't know the path" and then on the album's booklet that references Psalm 22: "Why are you so far from saving me?" This sense of listening to a man, to an album, that is far from the ordinary is underlined on 715 - Creeks when he asks rhetorically: "Oh then, how we gonna cry? Cause it once might not mean something?"

With out-of-kilter, heavily processed vocals throwing out mantras that include words like "modus," "gnosis," "consecration", "confirmation" and "depose this," 22, A Million is not exactly a bland exercise in following the herd. As NME joked in its review: ''It seems hanging out with the boundary-nudging Kanye West has had a lasting impact.'' I think I can say without fear of contradiction that 22, A Million will have a lasting impact, like Mr West's Yeezus or indeed Radiohead's equally radical and shape-shifting Kid-A.

As you can imagine, Justin is a fascinating artist on many levels. "It was a long moment, these last few years, thinking: What am I doing? What do I want to do it for?" he said in a recent interview with The New York Times. "I feel both blessed and cursed by the fact that I can do whatever I want at this point. I have more recognition than I had ever wanted to deal with. It's important to me to not pay any attention to questions of, 'What's your legacy going to be?' or 'What are you going to leave behind?' or 'How do you work into the current scene?' or 'How do you relate to the chart-toppers?'" He added: "I find all of that stuff not only distracting but kind of the opposite of what it all means."

I haven't a clue what's going on on 22, A Million. Nor, I suspect, does Justin Vernon. But listen to 33 God or 8 (Circle) a few times and tell me that it is not something interesting. There are samples of Mahalia Jackson's How I Got Over and the Supreme Jubilees's Standing In The Need Of Prayer. I don't know what Justin Vernon is in need of, but maybe we can get some too?

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