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Bon Iver // 22, A Million : the math behind the mind

If For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver conjure up the people and places of the memory, then 22, A Million conjures up the voices and landscapes of the mind.
As ever, Justin Vernon uses the music as a way to expresses the thoughts and feelings important to him at that time in his life. But it’s around here that similarities between the old music and the new album get pretty sparse. 22, A Million is an expression, not just for emotional release, but for inspection. The theme of calculation and codes is integral to the record. Every track name includes a numerical code and the album artwork is packed with symbols, both cultural and mathematical. Each song also has a lyric video which displays even more connections between words, sounds, numbers and images. Mathematical and emotional ideas are frequently combined in text and images – the video for ‘8 (circle)’ writes ‘you called +’ and ‘i came -’ and shows a bone dividing 8 and 9, and a diagram that fills with numbers and symbols to the sound of trumpets.

This mathematical expression of emotional, subjective ideas represents an attempt to make sense of the unpredictable and nonsensical human mind – to find ‘the math behind it’. The record’s constant merging of art, technology, math and poetry is also a symbol in itself of the clashing and merging of new and old within music-making. 22, A Million acknowledges itself as an example of this. Whilst it relies heavily on live instrumentation and maintains aspects of the romantic, acoustic style of earlier Bon Iver, the new record enthusiastically embraces the potential of the digital age.
One really interesting thing about 22, A Million is how it combines natural and artificial sounds to express emotional experience. The record uses a load of weird and wonderful tools and techniques in its attempt to express itself. One amazing tool used throughout the album is the ‘Messina’ – an instrument created by Justin and his engineer, Chris Messina, to fluctuate pitches in a number of different harmonies. The instrument is used in ‘____45_____’ to warp the saxophone which, paired with Justin’s overdubbed vocals, creates a gorgeous, trippy, introspective track. The Messina is given sole credit for ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’, which uses volume and pitch fluctuation to echo the similarly fluctuating emotions of a troubled mind. ‘M◊◊N WATER’ also uses digital effects to describe human experience – heavily manipulated samples build the calm, modest track into a discordant jumble of overlapping sounds that echo the conflicting, erratic behaviour of thoughts. This feeling of conflict is also created in a number of songs by overdubbed vocals singing different lyrics. If minds could sing, I imagine it’d sound a lot like this record.

Despite the intimate, referential nature of Justin’s lyrics, the album is by no means an expression of just his feelings. Its plethora of emotional, symbolic content not only offers the audience a glimpse into Justin’s mind, but the mind of every contributor, including their own. Like the album’s artist, Eric Carlson, says, ‘symbols in the context of music have a lot of power’ – ‘Justin assigned a specific meaning to the numbers and logic to their creation, but in the end, they are open containers to be filled with new meaning’. 22, A Million is not just one story – it’s a sprawling mass of creation and expression that invites you not only to listen but to think, create your own connections, and find the math in your own mind.

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