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Bon Iver & The Importance Of Being Baffled

Not understanding stuff is rarely fun. It takes me back to maths class. Three years of artful copying had successfully convinced my teachers that I was a bit of a protégé when it came to numbers and such, when in fact I didn’t really have the faintest idea what was happening. Cheating is wrong, children – and it’ll always catch up with you. In this instance, it was me being ceremoniously placed in Set One in GCSE year, with a class full of wonder kids and one of the most highly regarded teachers in the school. To put it diplomatically, I was a little out of my depth. To put it undiplomatically, I was fucking drowning.

See, my ignorance was so disheartening because I seemed to be the only one confused. In reality, there were probably about five others who had wormed their way into the premier just like myself, but I didn’t know this. In my mind, I was the sole recipient of mathematic ignorance, stuck in a room full of experts. It was rubbish. Collective bewilderment, however, is a different kettle of fish entirely. Universal confusion is wonderful and fun. There’s something magical about a sea of equally baffled expressions, isn’t there? Without realising, you’ve all just shared something. You’re not quite sure what, exactly – but you’ve shared it nonetheless. This is kind of how I view Bon Iver’s new record.

Let’s make this clear from the get-go: I think 22, A Million is superb. It’s vulnerable, detached and really quite strange. But it’s not at all like maths class. Because I enjoy it. I really, really enjoy it. And, more importantly, it’s not just me that is a little confounded by it. In an article that was published a few weeks before the album’s release, I compared the new sounds to Radiohead’s Kid A in terms of its pioneering approach to the perplexing. I stand by it.

Following Kid A’s release in 2001, the world let out a unified, harmonic *WTF*. Fans and critics alike were left mystified by the band’s fourth album, the follow-up to the universally adored OK Computer. It didn’t sound like Radiohead were supposed to sound. It built upon electronic fragmentation; an eerie, indefinable soundscape in which Thom Yorke’s haunting falsetto was embedded within the instrumental ecosystem. It didn’t sound like anything was supposed to sound. It still doesn’t, really. That’s why it is (and forever remain) one of the century’s finest releases. 22, A Million is the same, only heightened.

Ambiguity is no new concept in music. Lyrically, a difficulty to interpret what’s really going on has formed the backbone of pretty much every R.E.M. ever written – and then every other band or artist inspired by their work. The difference, though, between, say Automatic For The People and 22, A Million is that the weirdness isn’t exclusive to the words. Sonically, Bon Iver’s instrumental makeups are just as distorted as what he’s saying. For all of Kid A’s bafflement, there were still melodies. How To Disappear Completely could have feasibly found its way onto OK Computer, while Idioteque is as close to radio-friendly as the band will ever get. But 22, A Million goes even further. Conventional structures and progressions are thrown out of the window, as is the idea of harmony or cohesion. The album builds and drops with fluctuating impracticality – and it’s impossible to second guess. Even the track listing’s typography is confusing.

What I’m getting at, though, is that this is fine. It’s better than fine. It’s brilliant. It’s what makes the record so beautiful. The post-digital world has a fascination with accessibility – especially when art is concerned. Look at sites like SongMeanings and RapGenius, for instance; it’s almost as if people can’t truly begin to enjoy something until they possess an encyclopaedic understanding of all that it is. Face value is dead. 22, A Million is undoubtedly a digital record – but don’t think that makes it accessible, either. At 34 minutes, it’s a lot shorter than most other records. It’s a sharp, swift burst of gorgeous, dumfounded mystery. It’s wild and indescribable and unlike anything else that has come before it. Try and categorise it. Try and argue what each track means. You can’t. But that’s fine. Like I said, it’s brilliant.

In 2016, much concern has fallen on novel ways in which to release and distribute records. There was the surprise album (The Colour In Anything), the event album (Lemonade), the not-even-an-album album (Colouring Book), the anti-marketed album (A Moon Shaped Pool), the album-is-dead album (The Life Of Pablo) and fucking Frank Ocean. They’re all well and good, and certainly – in most cases – exciting, but 22, A Million is different. This is exciting because of how it sounds. That is what’s new about it. This is unlike anything you would or should have heard. It’s crazy. But I repeat: that’s fine. Because we’re all sharing that. We’re sharing music in the traditional sense. Against all odds, Bon Iver has made it about the music again.

Words by Niall Flynn

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