Sometimes, the story behind an album eats up the album itself. The legend is that 25-year-old Justin Vernon, graduate of the University of Wisconsin — Eau Claire with a degree in religious studies, had hit a rough patch. Tortured by the unfulfilled yearning of his hungry, wild heart, he retreated to a cabin in Wisconsin to commune with the gods of young white male pain. Alone in the snow, he crafted out of the forge of his soul a collection of songs of such tender, fragile beauty that they didn’t even need discernible lyrics to make you cry.
The resulting album, For Emma, Forever Ago, quickly helped define a growing scene of bearded, flannel-wearing, woodsy/folksy/strumming singer-songwriter hipsters, a movement that vaguely championed a return to nature and natural instruments. The effect of this album was, of course, highly dependent on its backstory, which hit home with thousands of heartbroken would-be artist-dudes that saw Vernon’s secluded work as the ultimate expression of authentic artistry.
To fully understand the degree to which this story became bigger than the album itself, all you need to do is check out the Wikipedia page for For Emma, Forever Ago. The “Background,” “Recording and Production” and “Composition” sections are hilariously written like a short story. Samples include: “He lost his money playing online poker, which he viewed as a microcosm for his other problems.” Once he arrived at the cabin, “He would wake each morning at sunrise, due to the light reflecting from the snow. To help repair his 1964 Sears Silvertone guitar, he traded venison in the nearby town.” At one point, he even faced down a wild bear. You can’t make this shit up.
To be fair, Vernon himself probably didn’t intend to manipulate this story to make him a star. As he said of his time in the cabin, “It’s sort of odd to look back and see it as magical, because it felt like a lonely few months at the cabin, where I plugged in the laptop and fucked around.” Since that album, he has pushed farther and farther from his template, even bridging into the rap world by frequently collaborating with Kanye West. Bon Iver’s new album, 22, A Million, pushes farther still from his beginnings as an “indie folk” artist, even as he continues the unbroken tradition of placing commas in the middle of Bon Iver’s album titles.
Bon Iver’s lyrics have never been really intelligible, in both senses: they’re very hard to understand, and even once looked up they’re pretty hard to decode. 22, A Million extends this opacity to the music itself: while the lyrics are made up of fragments of imagery, the music is made up of dissonant shards of sounds. Vernon sings through machines that make his voice sound sometimes like it’s underwater, and other times like a choir of fervent, mechanical angels. The song titles are mystifying combinations of words and numbers — I still haven’t seen an online article that’s decoded what’s going on with the numerology of the album.
All of these factors together make 22, A Million a more “difficult” album than any of Bon Iver’s previous work. It’s hard not to read this album as a total rejection of the sort of explanatory “meaning” that the cabin backstory provided for the music of For Emma, Forever Ago. Funnily enough, if you dig deep into the story of the album’s making you can find an equally myth-ready narrative. Vernon, upset with the overly digital sound of the album’s first single, “22 (Over Soon),” crumpled up a tape of Neil Young’s Unplugged and wrote on it in marker. Then he recorded over this tape, and the distortion this process created is audible in the track’s background.
While this might seem just as pretentious a backstory as the cabin was for Bon Iver’s first album, to my eye it shows growth. The story of the cabin retreat had, ultimately, nothing to do with the music of the album; it was only ever told to give that music meaning and context. The use of the Neil Young tape, on the other hand, was specifically to create an audible effect; and Vernon hardly advertised this anecdote. As Bon Iver’s music moves further into the abstract, it is simultaneously becoming more grounded in itself, less dependent on musical and genre conventions. Maybe what Vernon really needed to do was get out of that cabin.
Jack Jones is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]