Growing Into 21 Through 22, A Million

I was twelve years old when Bon Iver–an indie band from the woods of Wisconsin– released For Emma, Forever Ago (2007). I was thirteen when my friend started making me mixtapes featuring the likes of Dashboard Confessional, The Goo Goo Dolls, Snow Patrol, and Bon Iver–Bon Iver is the only one that’s stuck.

Justin Vernon (songwriter and lead vocalist) released Bon Iver’s third studio album 22, A Million, (2016) three days before my twenty-first birthday. I hated it at first–it’s overly-electronic, techno-pulsing beats are nothing like For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s (2011) dream-like harmonies. Vernon even titles the new songs so abstractly—bizarre concoctions of letters and numbers, not the personal names of places and people of the songs of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. I realize now that I was too caught up in my own panic regarding a birthday that officially made me an adult and simultaneous separation from the places and people that formed me, to realize Bon Iver’s own artistry and growth within 22, A Million.

I was lucky to attend one (Dec 10, 2016, at the Hammerstein Ballroom) of Bon Iver’s ten nights of concerts in NYC during the 22, A Million tour. What I’d intended on being a nostalgic night with my above-mentioned friend who first introduced me to the band those eight years ago, ended up becoming a classic “college” night with one of my girlfriends—traveling by train into the city, being called “honey” by the concert venue’s bartender who barely believed my newly-minted ID, and nearly running out of gas at three in the morning on our drive home from the train station. 

At the ballroom, I stood amongst a sea of white bros in beanies and dark-rimmed glasses, sipping my vodka soda. The stage lights began to flash in bright colors, and I wondered what the night would become. The purity in Justin’s voice, the awe in his eyes as he gazed at his fellow musicians on stage, and the awkwardness with which he fiddled with his new electronic equipment—at one point, telling the audience, “how cool is it that this is probably the only job in the world where I can fuck up and you’ll still clap for me’’—endeared me and drew me in again.  

Justin Vernon designs the album so that the ending of each song deliberately flows into the beginning of the next, leaving its audiences with a complete thirty-four-minute listening experience rather than ten disparate sections. Though I most often listen to single songs, I like knowing the fact that, somehow, they belong to a more complete narrative. At the concert, Vernon played some songs in order, with their corresponding seamless transitions, while also interjecting songs from previous albums in between. The result was a hodgepodge of current emotions, nostalgic memories, and future fears. Though they did not fit together as parts belonging to the whole of a single album, they fit together as parts belonging to a complete discography, a life story.

I remember reading an interview with Vernon after the release of Bon Iver’s second album where he described the song “Towers” as being about losing one’s virginity. The night of the 22, A Million concert, before he played “Towers,” he introduced it as being a song about college. Maybe, with time, the memory of one just warped into the memory of the other.  

That night, with all its juvenile missteps, became exactly what I needed it to be. I ended up feeling hopeful in our ability to find new ways to express ourselves and connect as we grow up in this digital age. I have a newfound faith in the beauty and power of a long-ranging narrative arc and in exploration as a means to growth. To me, 22, A Million feels similar to the twists and sometimes unsettling turns that have lead to rare moments of clarity that I’ve encountered during the beginning of my third decade, my third album. –Linne Halpern

Linne Halpern '18 is an English and American Studies double major at Wesleyan University. She is co-founder and editor of Reverberations. 

22, A Million (2016) By Bon Iver
Produced by Justin Vernon
Label: Jagjaguwar