715: How Justin Vernon Walked Away from Bon Iver and Returned with the Stunning 22, A Million

Album Reviews
Jacob Webb
Justin Vernon at the 22, A Million press conference in Eau Claire, WI // photo by Graham Tolbert

While a room full of journalists listened to 22, A Million, the highly-anticipated third Bon Iver album, in the Oxbow Hotel on a Friday night in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Justin Vernon did what anyone else would do before a big interview: he smoked a cigarette. He knew he was maybe twenty minutes away from sitting down in front of a room full of specifically-invited journalists to take an hour or two of questions about why he had returned to Bon Iver after emphatically walking away from the project a few years prior; about why his newest album was stylistically miles removed from his now-classic debut; about why he isn't showing his face in any of his current publicity photos (and as well in all of the photos that the twenty-six other journalists and I were provided for this strictly no-photography event); and about how the tour for his band's sophomore effort left him, in his own words, "at the end of his rope". So, of course, he had a cigarette. But after he finished it, he entered the room and for nearly two hours answered why we journalists were flown out to his hometown with barely a week's notice - to tell the story of how his hometown led Vernon back from a dark, uncertain period where a third Bon Iver album was anything but a certainty.

It's hardly a secret now that the lengthy tour for 2011's Bon Iver, Bon Iver left Justin Vernon physically and mentally exhausted. Towards the end of the album's promotional cycle, he explicitly said that he would be walking away from the project indefinitely. And while he worked on numerous projects in the half-decade between the second and third Bon Iver albums, it's telling that most of the handful of work that he did under the moniker in that timeframe was with his collaborator and mutual appreciation society member Kanye West. Perhaps it's unsurprising then that 22, A Million is, in almost every sense of the word, a difficult record. From Vernon's own account, it was a very difficult one to create. In a notation alongside the lyrics to "33 'GOD'" in the album's liner notes, for instance, Vernon references Psalm 22, which roughly consists of two parts: 1) David agonizingly crying out for God to explain why He's abandoned him and 2) David proclaiming how glorious it will be when God actually does show up. During the process of making the album, it's clear that Vernon was very much experiencing the former scenario. Simply put, 22, A Million is the most anxious, challenging, obscure piece of art that Vernon has put out, Bon Iver or otherwise. The album is nearly devoid of guitars, contains few recognizable choruses, and its song titles are borderline impossible to type and even clumsier to say out loud. (In fact, when Vernon was asked by one of the numerous radio professionals in the audience how to correctly pronounce the tracks, seemingly half the room started furiously scribbling down notes while Vernon went through the phonetic structure of each track's name.) The album's opening track, "22 (OVER S∞∞N)", actually originated from Justin Vernon walking around on an ill-fated solo trip to the Greek islands ("I was trying to find myself, and uh... I did not," he deadpanned.) repeating the titular phrase to himself. "What I was going through, and what I found a lot of other people were going through, was a lot of anxiety," Vernon explained while discussing the origins of the genesis of "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄", and by extension, the album. "It made me want to get up out of my seat and break [the song] down... do something aggressive-sounding."

And while most of 22, A Million is not as claustrophobic as "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄", it certainly sounds like, to quote one of the journalists in the room, "a broken down version of Bon Iver." Whether you interpret "broken down" to mean damaged or merely deconstructed is up to you - they're both accurate descriptions of the ten newest Bon Iver songs. Vernon's singular voice, the one unifying thread between his various projects, is so often altered here that it's almost unrecognizable at times, with a spectrum ranging from Vocoder-laden almost-acapellas ("715 - CRΣΣKS") to multi-layered computer folk ("29 #Strafford APTS") to lo-fi gospel ("00000 Million"). That's to say nothing of the numerous vocal samples that Vernon layers around his severely manipulated voice, including Scottish soul singer Paolo Nutini, the Queen of Gospel Mahalia Jackson, an Indiana church congregation reading the aforementioned Psalm, a muffled callsign from 105.7 FM WCFW in Chippewa Falls, WI and, in an uncredited but suddenly high profile turn, Stevie Nicks. The arrangements on 22, A Million are just as multiplicitous. A chopped-and-changed take on a sublime saxophone performance from frequent Vernon collaborator Michael Lewis builds a free-flowing, barely-structured frame for Vernon's one-man choir on "____45_____", which follows the twinkling space Hornsbyisms of "666 ʇ" by only eight minutes and the elliptical, jagged harmonies of the opening track by less than half an hour.

While its runtime only just comes in under those of Bon Iver, Bon Iver and For Emma, Forever Ago (they run for 35, 39, and 37 minutes, respectively), 22, A Million feels infinitely more brisk than those records because of its stylistic and thematic restlessness. As usual, Vernon's lyrics are far more impressionistic than narrative-based, and even if his turns of phrase don't work on paper - "I could go forward in the light/well I better fold my clothes" - his delivery, like that of all great singers, can add gravity and pathos to whatever words or sounds they make. Appropriately, the most stunning moment on the album comes during "8 (circle)", when Vernon's voice, unadorned and single-tracked for the first time in the Bon Iver catalog, declares "one more time just pass me by/I'mma make it half the night/hall light wishes" Like all the other lyrics on the record, they're up to whatever interpretation the listener would like, but the vocal performance is inarguably equal parts damaged, frustrated, determined, and hopeful. It's David calling out to God, "why are you so far from saving me?".

It's as moving as anything else Vernon has put to tape, and it's the high point on what is, to this writer's ears, Vernon's third masterpiece in a row. "8 (circle)" is one of a handful of moments when Vernon doesn't sound overwhelmed by anxiety but optimistic and resolved, which is how he looked on Friday night, despite his professed nervousness. And despite answering questions about a record that is perhaps even more caustic and fraught than the benchmark-of-desolation that is For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon generally seemed at ease. Then again, anyone would be more relaxed when in their hometown, in a hotel they're developing with their close friends, with their mentor in the room. After listening to Vernon make numerous barely-veiled mentions of "dark nights" during his tour behind Volcano Choir's 2013 LP, Repave and the Bon Iver, Bon Iver touring cycle left, it became very clear that Eau Claire (and the stability and familiarity it holds) was what Vernon was longing for when criss-crossing the globe in 2011-12.

For those who have never been there – which was at least half the room before that night – Eau Claire is a quaint Midwestern town in western Wisconsin. You can bike around most of the major areas of the city, as well as a few park-adjacent bike trails in a few hours, which is how a few of the journalists, including myself, spent their afternoon. Vernon's alma mater, University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, had their move-in day that afternoon, and downtown, and particularly the row of college bars on Water Street, were full of life. It didn't take much effort to see how much the town adores Vernon. Right outside the hotel, I was staying at, people stopped to take pictures with the large 22, A Million mural on the corner of Eau Claire St. and N Farwell St. Probably at least a few students moving into the Towers Hall dormitory had to have been aware that there was a Bon Iver song written about it. At The Joynt, a Water Street bar that a local – shoutout to Billy – led me and a number of other journalists to after the press conference, there were at least three students wearing shirts from the Vernon-curated Eaux Claires music festival and I overheard one conversation speculating whether or not Vernon himself would make an appearance at the bar that night. (He wouldn't. From numerous accounts, he went straight home after the press conference ended.)

photo by Graham
photo by Graham Tolbert

Clearly, Eau Claire loves Justin Vernon, and as Vernon answered questions, it gradually became apparent that Vernon more than reciprocates the town's appreciation for him. For every anecdote of the struggles he went through while traveling, there was one about the happiness and peace Vernon finds in Eau Claire. For example, he would frequently call his neighbor (and "band father") Michael Perry, for advice while on tour. ("I kinda wish he was at my side at all times," Vernon noted not long after Perry introduced him.) Now he can talk to Perry in person. He can take his niece and nephew out to tap maple trees. He repeatedly expressed finding great fulfillment from investing in his community, both in an artistic and business sense, and a number of his longtime friends/collaborators/business partners were in the room on Friday night.

While he doesn't want to be public figure – Vernon specifically mentioned turning down photo ops as something that helps him keep balance now – he's more than happy, even eager to be your neighbor. But he knows he is nothing short of a megastar in Eau Claire, as one of the handful of student newspaper reporters in the audience would confirm as she introduced her question for Vernon, and although he hardly seems thrilled about the amount of attention he still gets, Vernon seems to have accepted it as a small price to pay for being able to bring about such a widespread, positive influence into the town where he grew up. To be fair, holding the press conference was a way of limiting the amount of attention Vernon will need to engage with on this album cycle – "we believe in what we do but not so much that we feel the need to tell our 'story' exclusively to 100 folks at a 100 different times" he wrote in a note given to all of the journalists as they entered – but it was also a reason to bring some people to Eau Claire who had never been to the city before. And honestly, if it wasn't for Vernon's invitation, I probably would've never otherwise made it out to Eau Claire. It's just under two hours away from the closest airport (Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport), and your only ways to get in and out of the town are renting a car or reserving a spot on the Chippewa Valley shuttle bus. But after experiencing the warmth of the community of Eau Claire, I feel far more excited to make a stop at Eaux Claires during festival season 2017 than at any of the major festivals in the Pacific Northwest. After experiencing the town, it's far easier to contextualize the album's more optimistic-sounding final third, the parallel to Vernon returning home to solace after weathering a wandering, pining season, and it's clear that inviting people to hear his story in person, in Eau Claire, rather than telling it over the phone 100 times, was the point of the press conference. Responding to a question about if encouraging people to visit Eau Claire is a goal for Vernon, he paused and then agreed, "I think it's nice to think about the folks that are from here, to have other folks come here... to share what we have with them."

photo by Graham Tolbert

Despite his professed nervousness, Vernon was certainly thoughtful and amiable throughout the night, and surely the most emphatic when he was asked about Eau Claire, undoubtedly because his love for his hometown seemingly eclipses even his desire to create art. "You go around the world and you see a bunch of great places, and I just know [Eau Claire] so well... doing the festival and all of that, it just feels really good to have that be part of your job title. Just trying to make everyone feel," he paused. "Better." Something struck me as I was leaving for the airport the following morning: it's not hard to imagine a future in which Vernon has truly retired Bon Iver and makes music with his friends at April Base, his Wisconsin studio, and has eschewed touring to simply be in Eau Claire. It's abundantly clear that he's considered that future too. As noted in Bon Iver's latest bio, the numbers in the album's title refer to Vernon (22, his favorite number) and "the rest of the world" (A Million), a fitting title for an album that's essentially a document of Vernon's search to find his place in the world over the last few years. Walking through Carson Park or down Water Street, you can see the number for the post-script: 715, the area code for Eau Claire, Wisconsin, population 67,000, home of Justin Vernon.

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