Countless films and novels over the years have pushed the fable of a person deliberately setting about to “find themselves” with a dramatic journey, a complete reinvention, or a cathartic scream into an infinite abyss.
Justin Vernon, founder and leader of Bon Iver, himself has played a role in this mythology.
Before his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon experienced a painful breakup, dissolved a few bands, contracted pneumonia, mononucleosis, and fought off a liver infection. To fight the despair, he went to live in his father’s remote hunting cabin during the harsh Wisconsin winter. And out came the music.
But that was ages ago. And Vernon didn’t necessarily find himself in that cabin—just a sound that worked.
As he revealed in interviews previewing his third full-length, 22, A Million, musical success doesn’t necessarily mean he’s gotten any closer to understanding himself.
Following the runaway success of the band’s Grammy-winning sophomore record, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Vernon experienced waves of panic and self-doubt. He took a solo trip to Europe to find clarity, but all that did was exacerbate his woes.
“Don’t go to the Greek islands off-season, by yourself. I was trying to find myself. Did not,” he explained this month. And so goes the truth about those “finding yourself” narratives in pop culture: There are no easy answers; and life is not a movie.
As such, 22, A Million is a 35-minute exploration of that search for self-understanding and the realization that it doesn’t come as willingly as you’d expect. Growing into your own soul takes patience and pain—and you definitely can’t plan it.
During an existential crisis, all you can do is step out of the dust cloud and hope it might be over soon. As Vernon roamed Greek islands alone, feeling helpless, he began humming those exact words—“It might be over soon”—until it became something of a mantra. And then the basis for the album’s heartrending opener, “22 (OVER S∞∞N).”
Atop an elegiac, slow-burn chord progression, Vernon coos that line over and over again, as if to pacify the raging storm inside his mind. “Within a rise there lies a scission,” he admits of his ascent to fame; but never mind the troubles, “it might be over soon.”
Perhaps scaling back from Bon Iver’s grandiose, heavily orchestrated second album, Vernon resists overindulgence here. Just as the refrain becomes an anthemic gospel chant, begging for Krishna-like repetition, the song ends.
A maudlin string arrangement carries listeners to “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” a meditation on insecurity led by distorted drums and occasionally pitched-up vocals (bonus points for inventing the word “fuckified”).
The song is a reminder that along Vernon’s rise to music stardom, he was plucked out of the indie world to work with Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That studio time with Yeezy clearly had its impact on Bon Iver: The jarringly primal drums on the second song, along with the pulsing bass synth on standout track “33 ‘GOD’,” are reminiscent of production from West’s punk-rap opus Yeezus.
Likewise, “29 #Strafford APTS” is a dreamy folk ballad in the vein of Bon Iver, but then Vernon tosses in some pitched-down harmonies and some pitched-up bridge vocals to obscure its simplicity.
And in that song is where listeners can better understand what the band meant when they said the album would contain “contexts of intense memories, signs that you can pin meaning onto or disregard as coincidence.”
“Sharing smoke in the stair up off the hot car lot,” Vernon wistfully croons to open the song. Such details of a shared experience with another human may seem prosaic, but set against vivid instrumentation—evoking a mumblecore film’s understated climax—it becomes revelatory.
The journey to self-understanding and recovery, the album suggests, is neither obvious nor instantaneous; it’s made up of countless experiences and memories—mundane or not—that shape how we view ourselves and the world around us.
That attitude toward finding oneself is never more present than in 22, A Million’s sublimely gorgeous final two ballads.
“8 (circle)” is the spiritual successor to “Beth/Rest,” the sax-and-synth-drenched closer to their previous album. Across both torch songs, Vernon channels Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel for an iconic ’80s film soundtrack-like sound.
“I’m standing in your street now / And I carry his guitar,” he sings as ethereal brass and bass swoon in the background. You can almost imagine John Cusack in his trench coat, boombox hoisted overhead with this particular Bon Iver tune blaring.
And then, after a subdued interlude, we come to the album’s spiritual core in closing track “00000 Million.”
Over plaintive and intimate acoustic piano reminiscent of Tom Waits’s best bawlers, Vernon delivers a hymnal for the neurotics; a sermon for those who’ve yet to see the light at the end of their tunnel.
“I worried ’bout rain and I worried ’bout lightning,” Vernon says. “But I watched them all off to the light of the morning.”
In other words: It will be over soon.
And with a proud resignation, Vernon delivers the album’s central lesson: don’t be afraid. After all, life is one long struggle against change—best to wave the white flag sometimes.
“Well if it harms me, it harms me,” he boldly declares. “I’ll let it in.”