Sometimes I like to play a version of the ‘who came first, the chicken or the egg’ game with Kanye West and his collaborators. Anytime Kanye releases new music and features different voices on the project, I wonder whether it’s Kanye’s environment or energy that gives the collaborator the space to work in or if they go in and takes over to create a new moment on the song for him. With that said, regardless of what Kanye is making or has people do while making his work, there is a trend in music that is appearing in terms of production style and vocal recording techniques. Several artists such as Frank Ocean, David Longstreth (Dirty Projectors), and James Blake have been creating music with more experimental song forms and heavily manipulated vocals that are teasing the boundaries of Indie and Pop music. One of Kanye’s most frequent collaborators, Justin Vernon, has been making music on the vanguard of this style for several years now.
I am not a fan of Bon Iver. I’ve never listened to For Emma, Forever Ago and I’ve listened to Bon Iver a total of maybe 3 times in my entire life (for the sake of the review I listened to both albums, and it’s not my music but they individually sound spectacular for entirely separate reasons; one is introspective, the other expansive). However, when I heard the singles off 22, A Million a few days after they were released, something clicked. Even though Vernon used vocal manipulation heavily on previous albums, the way in which they were incorporated into this electronic folk music with dense samples and glitched edits struck my interest.
The album itself acquires the same space as Kid A, Laughing Stock, or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: dark, moody music that comes from a place of both immense passion and reluctance. It’s monochromatic, and the colors you see are the same as the ones in gasoline on pavement. Vernon writes some kind of modernist take on Folk and Americana, as if Franz Kline decided to create a pastoral landscape. Saxophones, banjos, guitars, and pianos are seen through a cold digital filter that renders them into fragments and pieces of what they were. Vocals are treated the same, with melody lines harmonized to create a voice that sounds like a church organ being run through a ventilator.
It’s a puzzle that wants the listener to stare at it and try to solve it; just look at the cover. Dense imagery, deep symbolic meanings, music with vocals warped to the point of words being unintelligible to songs that have titles where icons replace letters.
Within the cryptic lyrics and symbolism lie themes of fame, religion, and loss of love. His use of faith and language in particular stand out as a sort of binding force to all the ideas in the lyricism. Whether it’s love or his inability to be secure with his fame and place in culture, religion is the common element.
‘Canonized, Canonized’ (29 #Strafford APTS)
‘Honey I understand I’ve been left out in the reeds’ (715 – CRΣΣKS)
‘I’m standing in need of your prayer’ (666 ʇ)
[The sample of Gospel artist Mahalia Jackson on 22 (OVER S∞∞N).”]
Giving form to what is formless, which in many ways is the purpose of religion, for a person who is writing music that seems to have him lost without a compass. In a press conference, Vernon talked about not wanting to do the album anymore:
“I almost quit on it, in January of this year; I almost hung the album up. Sort of tired of it, and tired of working on it…” – Justin Vernon
To go through each track seems like a fools errand to me because the music doesn’t have any intention of being seen in that light. Songs segue, crash, and run into each other. The lines are constantly blurred and manipulated to create new images depending on where you start the album; thanks to an understated run time of 34 minutes, the arc of the music is perfect for one sitting.
This album, as well as its most relevant contemporaries Blond and The Colour of Anything, are either going to be future standard-bearers or an interesting digression in the modern age of pop music. But regardless of the outcome, the fact is that well-considered, interesting, and challenging music is being reached by a wide audience and has the ability to expand the palette of contemporary music.
Written by Ian Michael