[9 min read + 45 min media]
Justin Vernon seems to be the kind of artist who likes to take his time to meticulously compose, produce and release a new record for his indie band, Bon Iver. And each time, he tentatively dares to pretty much reinvent himself from scratch. The new 22, A Million is no exception. We get an extremely intricate collection of songs (and visuals – more about that later) with chopped lyrics, fractured bits of sound, treated instruments, altered vocals and chaotic samples. There are still, of course, his voice, the occasional strum of an acoustic guitar, and the inclusive vibe of gospel and folk typical of Americana mountain songs.
Bon Iver’s 22, A Million multimedia ensemble creates a harrowing fluidity between text, image and sound furthermore symbolized by the recurrent use of the yin yang symbol.
This time though, he also embraces and celebrates the many ways computer-mediated technology has affected our digital age, namely the way we think, feel, collect, consume, share and create. The result is, by far, his most challenging and experimental record to date, ditching both the immediate intimacy of For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) and the grandiose eloquence of Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011), without jettisoning the spiritual component that has been paramount to the emotional core of his music.
What has also been quite admirable in the rollout of his new record is witnessing that not only the meticulous care he devoted to his music has also been applied into the album’s graphic identity, but also how the latter echoes and further explores its elusive structure and dense themes of existential anxiety. In a collaborative process that immediately brings to mind the two-decade working partnership between Radiohead and Stanley Doonwood, Brooklyn-based artist and designer Eric Timothy Carlson has developed an extremely layered and fascinating semiotic artwork that digitally articulates numerology, icons, pictograms, photographs, calligraphy and drawings.
An amateurish atmosphere or vernacular aesthetic happens to be a common denominator of the busy, disorientating structure of both audio and visual components of 22, A Million transmediatic experience.
This multimedia ensemble creates a harrowing fluidity between text, image and sound furthermore symbolized by the recurrent use of the yin yang symbol (which, in Chinese philosophy, describes how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another). One only needs to glance the track listing to realize that even the songs titles have been contaminated by the album overall graphic approach: titles such as “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” or “666 ʇ” are prone to make any Mark Z. Danielewski fan salivate.
All this admirable work has been used quite resourcefully to market the record in a transmediatic fashion: it populates promotional photos, social media posts, music magazines, a limited edition newspaper, giant urban murals and outdoors, merchandising, props, stages, the whole scope of physical audio formats (vinyl, CD, cassette) and, even more fascinatingly, music videos.
Justin Vernon has showed before that he is aware of the importance of music videos in the emerging digital landscape. In 2011, he boldly commissioned from several directors a music video for every track of his sophomore album and uploaded them to YouTube, almost two years before the audio-visual bravado of Beyoncé eponymous album (in fact, visual albums go way back to pre-MTV era, when David Mallet directed in 1979 a music video for each track of Blondie’s Eat to the Beat). For 22, A Million, though, there are two relevant novelties: every single video was co-created by Aaron Anderson under the supervision of the same person responsible for the overall art direction of the visual components of the record (Eric Timothy Carlson); and they are all lyric videos.
One of the first instances of lyric videos to ever surface the mediasphere was broadcasted by music television in 1987. Due to the reluctance of Prince in recording a conventional music video, his label asked director Bill Konersman to direct the official video for “Sign ‘O’ the Times”. He then famously delivered a karaoke-inspired visual treatment in which the lyrics of the song, written in typeface Times, appear on-screen in differing graphic displays alongside geometric shapes. In the digital era, the popularity of these kinetic typographies (it wouldn’t be farfetched to trace its inspiration back to the revolutionary work of Saul Bass for the opening credits of 1959 Hitchcock movie North by Northwest) exploded with the lyric video of Cee Lo’s “Fuck You” (2009) and have since increasingly crowded audio-visual vortexes such as YouTube and Vimeo. This ends up being a very apt choice for a record that so intensively tries to sonically replicate the fractured, crowd-sourced and hyperlinked nature of digital culture, considering that most of lyric videos found online are made by fans and graphic design students for class projects using Final Cut, iMovie or Premier (which are arguably nowadays the visual software equivalent of the sonic-oriented Pro-Tools). It comes then as no surprise that this amateurish atmosphere or vernacular aesthetic happens to be a common denominator of the busy, disorientating structure of both audio and visual components of 22, A Million transmediatic experience.
Back in the early eighties, when academia tried to seize the post-modern elusiveness, ephemerality and fragmented nature of music videos, some scholars compared the medium to some sort of electronic wallpaper or animated record sleeve.
Its cohesiveness is furthermore cemented by the fact that the kinetic typography of all lyric videos not only integrates the symbols, pictograms, photographs and drawings, but also the graphic display of the lyrics included in the inlays of both vinyl and CD formats of the album. Back in the early eighties, when academia tried to seize the post-modern elusiveness, ephemerality and fragmented nature of music videos, some scholars compared the medium to some sort of electronic wallpaper or animated record sleeve. Three decades later, Justin Vernon and Eric Timothy Carlson collaborative exploration of text, sound and images in 22, A Million proves that they were absolutely right.
As a concluding thought, many critics have (rightfully) pointed out the musical impact of Kanye West’s Yeezus in Bon Iver’s new album, but missed out an opportunity in articulating its visual influence. In 2013, the physical CD edition of Yeezus was released in a clear jewel box with no album artwork, only a colored sticker (red, green, yellow and orange) affixed to the back with sample credits and the record’s UPC. What was interpreted at the time as a visual reflex of the minimalist tone of the record, recently gained another interesting layer, when Kanye tweeted that the album packaging was intended as an open casket to the demise of CDs. Would it be implausible to see the rich, maximalist approach of 22, A Million visual identity as an effective response to Kanye’s claim? I let you be the one to give it an answer.