Bon Iver and the Sounds of Change

Liz Wann

“Skinny Love” and “Re: Stacks” were some of my favorite Bon Iver songs in my early twenties. Back then I prided myself on knowing about a band before they went mainstream, and I hung out with a like-minded group of friends who were mainly interested in music, film, literature, and art. Recently I turned 30 and developed a growing nostalgia for the “cool me.” At home with a preschooler and toddler, art revolves around paper plates and popsicle sticks. And while I’m behind on my music game, I’m on point with Elmo, Daniel Tiger, and PAW Patrol.

My role as a wife and mom has changed me significantly, so I can relate to the significant change in Bon Iver’s sound on the new album, 22, A Million. I was a different person in my single, early twenties. Though parts of that person are still in me, I’ll never be able to completely recreate my old self, because change has progressively moved me forward. As we are entering the fall season, with leaves changing to yellow, red, and brown, I’m reminded that change brings a form of death to us. Christians see an echo of Jesus in the way the leaf must first die and fall before we get to the resurrected buds of spring. With 22, A Million, Bon Iver similarly shows us how change is a necessary progression forward.

The man behind Bon Iver, Justin Vernon, has made a significant departure from the two previous albums. For Emma, Forever Ago was a stripped-down debut, with bare vocals and contemplative lyrics. Vernon’s second album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, brought a fuller sound by incorporating more instruments and collaborators. 22, A Million features a new playfulness and experimentation with sound. Vernon has traded in his little friend, the acoustic guitar, for a portable synthesizer, sampler, and customized vocoder. The majority of the songs have enhanced vocals, which often seem to disrupt the arrangement. Vernon also draws heavily from saxophone sections, reportedly weaving 150 saxophones into the mix. If the past albums were simple in presentation, Vernon now offers chaos tied and looped together into a vast web of complexity. (It should also be noted that lyrically, 22, A Million offers a complicated web of religious references, some of which are explored in this Christ & Pop Culture post.)

Change can be uncomfortable for us because it is a form of death.

On 22, A Million, Vernon progresses forward in his own way, and he isn’t looking back. This sort of change can be uncomfortable for us, because it is a form of death. The old passes away and something new is born. Much like the sonic contortions of 22, A Million, change feels like a distortion and a disruptive interruptance to the daily flow of life. Yet change is not only a necessary part of life, it’s also a crucial benefit.

It’s interesting to note that Vernon uses distortion and disruption to move us forward toward the serenity of the last few songs on the album. “00000 Million,” the final song, has more of the old Bon Iver in it, with the simple beauty of heartfelt vocals accompanied by a piano. 22, A Million loudly builds to a place of soft calmness. Such is change. Though we serve a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, he is also the sovereign ruler over the change in our lives. Change can be the purifying flame God uses to make us like his son and remind us that we are dependent creatures. We can be surprised by the bumps along the way, but ultimately if we trust in the kindness of the Good Shepherd’s staff and rod we will be led to green pastures and still waters.

The soft calm that 22, A Million builds to echos the state of heart and mind that the Lord wants to bring us to, no matter the chaos we experience. After all, we will always be in a continual state of change until we are taken to glory. “Now that this album’s done, as much as I healed a lot of things by making it, I know that it’s an ongoing thing,” Vernon recently told the New York Times. “The river does not end.”

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure