The Art of Understanding and How Bon Iver Has Come Full (Circle)

This album breathes the emotive qualities of life, all of its intricacies, and allows the space for us to come to our own understanding in much the same way Vernon has.

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Oct 5 2016, 3:49pm

A buzzing congregation stands in the courtyard of the Michelberger hotel in Berlin. They're clutching glass beer steins with their hands tucked neatly into the side to make sure nothing spills out. A string of fairy lights stretch from the four corners of this brick walled nest, leading the surroundings to resemble a golden and balmy winter's grotto. In case anyone needed to be reminded of tonight's performance, a distinct yet recognisable scent of weed threads its way through the crowd. As we drink and we smoke, we're also waiting to see Bon Iver showcase tracks from their third and latest album 22, A Million, a mere clutch of hours before it's released to streaming services and a subsequent healthy dose of critical acclaim.

When the band arrive on stage, they lend their greetings to our herbal surroundings. "It smells like pot," someone says, making their way to one of the five podium like roosts that make up the stage set up. Then they all face inwards. Vernon is crouched over his synthesiser, with his now customary baseball cap and relaxed clothing befitting the serenity of our surroundings; the others are placed behind saxophones, more synthesizers, drums and guitars. It is time for the new beginning. As the chatter around turns to an electric, almost lurching silence, it's almost as if everyone here is in agreement: the moment has arrived for us to feel, to share, to grow. And we are ready.

If all of this sounds dumb - the smell of pedestrianised weed, the grandiose expectation of wanting to be moved, the cute, kitschy backdrop of the Michelberger hotel, a thousand miles from Bon Iver's home of Wisconsin - then perhaps it is. But for those open to understanding, then 22, A Million and the surroundings built around it is anything but. In fact, this album, right to its very core, is about that process of letting emotional comprehension in, of being, of sometimes sharing these two intangible feelings together. In the smallest moments of that night's performance, you could hear the rise of smoke in someone's lungs, as though we all stood transfixed in our own vortexes of thought. Or like the four walls surrounding us could crumble, and if the emotion created by the five musicians in front of us was all that remained we would be okay with it coursing through our veins, splattering out, and reverberating forever. Because somewhere in between these sounds, we had all understood a nuanced feeling that had taken on a life of its own. 

Justin Vernon, the premier songwriter and frontman of the group Bon Iver, has built his career upon this specific premise of searching for intangible yet ephemerally deep enlightenment. His debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, remodelled the isolating and excruciating learning period that comes after a relationship's end. The self-titled, Grammy winning follow-up, Bon Iver, was more abstract. "Places are times and people are places and times are… people?", he told NPR in 2011, describing the song "Holocene" and the way we marry our understanding of a memory to place, like a familiar scent or a sound so fragile it can pierce our hearts. "Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind. I think there's a significance in that insignificance."

The brief press run for this new record, which took in only two interviews with The New York Times​ and the Guardian​, has lightly angled on Vernon's desire to be removed from the press. "There are people who are into being famous. And I don't like that" ran the headline on The Guardian. In a press conference​ prior to the release of 22, A Million, Vernon said "I have more recognition than I had ever wanted to deal with." But to see 22, A Million as simply a record where Vernon grapples with the fame he's received since winning a Grammy is to only scratch the surface of this album's incomprehensible depth. It is a record that yearns to get to the core of why music exists and the intangible spiritual and communicative power that lies within it. It is tied into an idea of time and the understanding that comes through those passing hours, aided by the moving transcendence of performed music - much like the tones that reverberated through the soul of the Michelberger.

In order to understand the neurology that sits at the root of 22, A Million, however, it is crucial to first be reminded of the personal story that makes up its bedrock. If Vernon doesn't like to be famous, it's perhaps because it interferes with the original intention of Bon Iver - which, described in the biography​ attached to the release of 22, A Million, is one of friends creating music together and using it to comprehend specific circumstances. Or to get more red-eyed about it, friends learning "how to create atmospheres and what we want them to do, which harmonies bring forth places we seek out, how particular articulations can explain more than words can even begin to attempt." When eyes are on you, a pressure could begin to form. The purity in this process can be eroded. 

So, in a much needed and documented decamp, Vernon and Bon Iver took a break. They started their own festival, Eaux Claire. Vernon recorded with Gayngs and The Staves, and performed with James Blake and Kanye West at Glastonbury. Ultimately, he was starting to sew the seeds of getting back to making music, with friends, in an attempt to search for a feeling. But he was still having difficulty with his own record. A project born from teenagers in Wisconsin had grown into a runaway train that had derailed into end of year lists and Kanye West's personal speed dial. Vernon headed to an island off the coast of Greece, where he walked around awhile, then experienced his first panic attack. It was on this isolated paradise that he recorded the first words we hear on 22, A Million's opening track. "It might be over soon," he sings, repeating the mantra with an ominous sense of knowing, familiar to anyone with a sense of the often debilitating clutch of anxiety and its psychosomatic foreboding.

Of course, this journey paid off and 22, A Million - a record that was nearly put off earlier this year due to the growing pains involved in its creation - has been released. Its tonality is one of another world; as though Vernon is clawing into the deep pools of human emotion from an alternate reality or a past-life. That sound you hear stretching across the record, of Vernon's glitched voice, is the result of the Messina, an instrument that Vernon and a studio engineer invented that warps vocals, making them resemble the fragmented tears of a distant technology. It has been said that this is an album, in a year of albums, that manages to sound like no other. Certainly, it stretches beyond ambition, with its advances into music technology, numerology and song structures. But its raw appeal is also magnificent in how straightforward it is, like a drop of rain falling from the sky.

In The New York Times interview, Vernon explained the name of the album - "it's 22 being me and a million being the Other". The biography accompanying the record expands on this, explaining that the number has significant meaning for Vernon. Like Angel Numbers - the process in which a set of figures (like "00:00") seem to consistently appear in one's life as a form of higher communication - the number 22 has held an important recurrence in Vernon's life: "a mile marker, a jersey number, a bill total". Perhaps this process of divine numerology gives some meaning to the abstract track names across 22, A Million, which take in names like "8 (circle)", "00000 Million" and "33 God". 

To me, the number 22 represents the personal journey Vernon has been on with this record. But the Million represents the journey we will embark upon when listening to it too. It is this number that comes full circle, back to where Bon Iver began, as a way for those who experience its music to process their feelings in a way that words cannot. Of course, that's not to say that Vernon isn't without his doubts about this process of searching for enlightenment through music. A particular lyric, "A word about Gnosis: it ain't gonna buy the groceries", suggests he's aware of its pitfalls. But then the album ends with the line "Well it harms me, it's harmed me, it'll harm… I let it in", as if to state that whatever it is he's feeling - a yearning and perhaps debilitating need to search for something, perhaps, or the extended winter-tundra of negative spiralling - he's come to an understanding. The line "The math ahead / The math behind it / It's moon water" on "21 M◊◊N WATER" recalls the spirituality that lies within the numerological theme of the album and the personal acceptance buried within its narrative. It's like a process has been completed; the water brushed off the back; a new serenity set. This is life; lets endeavour to experience its far reaches.

That 22, A Million has been released is evidence that some form of cleansing and evolution has taken place. "I had this huge idea and I didn't have the wherewithal to go through with it", Vernon told the Guardian, explaining his initial apprehension toward finishing the record. But watching Bon Iver live is the ultimate confirmation that everything has come full circle, back to the root of why they started to make music. The show at the Michelberger felt similar to watching a high school band, in that all five members seemed to connect on multiple planes: their personal history, friendship and understanding of each other leading into an otherworldly connection. Except this high-school band graduated into winning a Grammy. The Michelberger show isn't the only reason Vernon and co are in town, though. They're also here to play a festival, continuing to tread back toward that original path of playing music with friends, in search of a feeling or an understanding. 

This festival - which is loosely titled Michelberger Music and was assembled by Vernon, members of the National, and the Michelberger hotel team - puts an emphasis on collaboration between artists. It is based in the Funkhaus - a set of derelict buildings twenty or so minutes away from the Michelberger that house recording studios and warehouses. Eighty or so artists are performing across the weekend - not for a fee, but to create together and to let us in on the experience. Each of the acts, from Polica to Indonesian throat-singing artist Senyawa, will perform and collaborate and record here. In the early afternoon on Saturday, the saxophonist from Bon Iver's band and a bunch of others create what seems to be improvised and beautiful ambient music. In a big, orchestral like room, Bon Iver perform another set complete with a choir. Later, Vernon and five other guitarists - including Damien Rice - sit in a campfire like circle in this room, taking turns to play the guitar, with Vernon covering John Prine's "That's The Way That The World Goes Round". I don't get to see it, but Vernon also tells me that he has a performance scheduled with the British grime artist Trim. Finally, he performs a live techno set with members of the Teenage Engineering team.

The performances at the Michelberger Music festival sit at the peak of what 22, A Million has set out to achieve. For Vernon, this is the sound of his journey; one where he has come to the peaceful yet Faustian trade-off that to create these feelings, to understand these experiences, he has to create music once more on the world stage. Ultimately, though, he's found a way to do it that returns to the foot of what it's always been about. If For Emma, Forever Ago saw Vernon comprehend a break-up and Bon Iver attached our understanding of memory to place, then 22, A Million sees Vernon return to the very beginning - battered, but also cleansed and anew. It also sees him, once again, provide a tonality in which us - the million in 22, A Million - can figure out our journey. It breathes the emotive qualities of life, all of its intricacies, and allows the space for us to come to our own understanding in much the same way Vernon has. It is an art in the realm of understanding. It is forever. 

As Vernon's band mate Trevor Hagen writes in the biography: "the answer has been here the entire time: just music, always".

You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.

All press photos by Cameron Wittig & Crystal Quinn. Live photo by Azar Kazimir at The Michelberger.