Justin Vernon, the voice and brains behind Bon Iver, released the third album under that name on September 30, 2016. 22, A Million received immediate critical acclaim, and in it Vernon departed from the sound of Bon Iver’s two previous full-length albums, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) and Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011). The sparse instrumentation of songs like “Skinny Love” and “Perth” contrasts sharply with the heavily synthesized components of 22, A Million (see, for example, “715 – CR∑∑KS”), although even as early as Bon Iver Vernon subtly manipulates the sonic landscape on “Holocene.” 22, A Million, moreover, shifts thematically from Bon Iver’s earlier work; whereas For Emma was an album of heartbreak and Bon Iver of finding oneself in the world, 22, A Million wrestles, like Jacob, with god and with self-identity–although, again, these themes are not unique to 22, A Million (note Vernon’s reference to Qumran on “Re: Stacks”).
How does Vernon’s sonic and thematic departure in 22, A Million speak to questions of god and self? What does Vernon’s struggle with god on the album mean for his theology and for his self-understanding? Are there any hints from Vernon’s previous work that can inform an interpretation of 22, A Million?
I want to get to the heart of Vernon’s theology, primarily by means of analyzing lyrical and sonic features of 22, A Million–though not excluding other facets or periods of Vernon’s work. Because 22, A Million deals most directly with questions of god and self, it will be the most useful to this end. Looking through Bon Iver’s corpus, we see a progression from introspective questions of loneliness to fundamental questions of god and existential alienation. Vernon’s view of god appears to be molded by Jewish theology–though not merely in a Rabbinic or Orthodox sense. I’m reminded at times of the narrator in Foucault’s Pendulum, in which the protagonist delves deeply into esoteric spirituality but is shaped fundamentally by Jewish Kabbala. Just as Eco does for Casaubon, Vernon litters his artwork, particularly his lyrical videos, with iconography–religious and otherwise, obscure and obvious.
Vernon’s god is an enigma, hidden and difficult to approach, and Vernon’s own persona is frequently out of reach even to himself. Both god in himself and man in himself are shrouded in mystery and obscured by experience, unknowable except through mediation and association.
(This sort of project requires a few notes before beginning. If we will attach any sort of personal, Vernon-specific meaning to Bon Iver’s albums, we have to assume a significant overlap between Vernon the person and Vernon the songwriter. One gets the sense while listening to Bon Iver that Vernon has poured his soul into the work, but we can’t be certain. We can intuit a certain earnestness to Vernon’s lyrics and composition, and we’ll have to rely on that to proceed further in this endeavor. In the event that Bon Iver is merely a construct, however, we still have an interesting subject–just not Vernon himself.)
The Body of Work
DeYarmond Edison was an unsigned, indie band for which Vernon sang vocals. The band played together in the early aughts, and it released a couple of albums, though only one still streams on Spotify today. Their 2006 album Silent Signs bears the marks of Vernon’s hand, even keeping in mind the certain influence of Edison’s other members.
I don’t have too much to say about this album except to point out that Vernon has drawn on religious imagery throughout his career. For example, “ragstock” makes quick reference in the second verse not only to demons (a popular referent, and one he makes on Bon Iver, Bon Iver‘s “Calgary” and 22, A Million‘s “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”) but also to canonization, a more explicitly theological term (and one repeated on 22, A Million‘s “29 #Strafford APTS”): “Canonize our demons / turpentine our hate / turn in your violence / our vague care / there they turn.”
Far more explicitly, “dash” is a haunting song about god’s silence. The narrator yearns for a heavenly answer, but, left with a Gabriel who won’t “speak to me” and a Jesus “up in the sky as vague as your thesis,” he turns to Jung–and finds a god within.
Against Silence‘s Fr. Rodrigues, who faces god’s silence headlong and, depending on who you ask, maintains his faith in the face of ostensible apostasy, this narrator struggles with and forsakes the silent god. Vernon draws on the language, imagery, and existential force of Christian religiosity, and he finds it inadequate. This prefigures his view of god in 22, A Million, in which the transcendent god cannot be found and therefore has been discarded in favor of the divine spark within us.
So many torahs, so many for us
Bon Iver exploded onto the scene with its first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, released in 2007. Vernon’s origin story is paradigmatic: a heartbroken and forlorn artist emerges from the wilderness with an unmistakably beautiful work of art. The most well-known song from this debut album is certainly “Skinny Love,” although my personal favorite is “The Wolves (Act I and II)” with its forlorn “someday my pain” concluding the song. Critics raved about the album, and “Skinny Love” was a welcome reprieve from the typical play on the radio.
Vernon followed up this album with the 2011 release Bon Iver, Bon Iver. It had a similar sound to For Emma, Forever Ago, but Vernon continued to experiment with autotune and other tools. “Holocene” is easily the most popular song from this album. In contrast to For Emma, most of the songs on this album are named for cities–real or otherwise.
This my excavation and today is Qumran
For Emma, Forever Ago revolves around personal grief and isolation. Vernon wrote the album in the nearly cliché version of an artist’s origin story: broken by a broken romance, he retreats to a cabin and emerges with the most beautiful music the world’s ever seen. Although much of popular music centers around lost love, since that is often one of the most difficult emotional experiences of our lives, Vernon seeks a deeper level of reflection in his songwriting.
The album is full of existential angst, and Vernon frequently frames the pain of loss in unsettlingly poetic ways. The audience feels as though Vernon will not escape the pain of this moment, that it is not merely a temporary pain but one which will upend his life. In fact, the grief is religiously interpreted at times.
In two songs, Vernon makes explicit reference to theological ideas. In “Creature Fear,” Vernon speaks of being “seminary sold” and having “so many Torahs, so many for us.” The song, centered around the refrain of “creature fear,” can certainly be understood with reference to the traditional understanding of our “creatureliness,” that is, being “created” by something. The fear, expressed in the first chorus, relates to the creature finding itself in “so many foreign worlds, so relatively f*cked / so ready for us, so ready for us.” Such a generalized fear is expressed in the particularities of the verse, in which the narrator is rejected by an unnamed antagonist, despite being “seminary sold” on the idea of being with her. “Creature Fear” closes with an ambiguous (or possibly polyvalent) use of “so many Torahs,” in which either the inscription of god’s work in history is contingently understood or we each live under different manifestations of god’s law (i.e., Torah), which promotes the “creature fear” of an arbitrary lawgiver. The antagonist can act with impunity, then, because she lives under her own Torah.
In “Re: Stacks,” Vernon opens the song with “This my excavation and to / day is Qumran.” An apocalyptic sect of Second Temple Jews found itself at Qumran, a collection of caves in the wilderness of the West Bank, and there the Essenes (probably) kept their writings. In the mid-1950s, excavation of the area began in earnest, with New Testament and Jewish studies experts both taking a keen interest in the writings found there.
That the song begins with a reference to Qumran, of all things, should gear the audience to frame the rest of it along those lines. Whatever is said throughout the rest of the song, it should be understood as analogically similar to the paradigm-shifting nature of the Qumran discoveries. The narrator is certainly frustrated with his circumstances, but his perspective is hopeful: “… to / day is Qumran / everything that happens is from now on,” which is to say that the rest of his life will be lived from this moment of new discovery. The Qumran caves continue to enhance our view of Second Temple Judaism, including our New Testament, and framing his loss in these terms allows us to see (a) Vernon’s familiarity with somewhat obscure biblical studies and (b) Vernon’s religiously-informed self-understanding. That is not to suggest that Vernon is consciously “religious”; some heritage or interest in his life has allowed him to conceive of his place in the world by means of that paradigm, which is hardly uncommon among artists.
The sermons are the first to rest
Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a far more spatially-cognizant album than For Emma Forever Ago. Most of the songs reference concrete space in some manner, which is not necessarily true of the previous album. While Vernon has located himself somewhere in these songs, it’s not as though he’s totally found himself. He still struggles with remaining somewhere, as in the first verse of “Hinnom, TX”: “Baby, pasts are slain / I got outta LaGrange.”
Nevertheless, Bon Iver, Bon Iver draws from a theological vocabulary less than For Emma Forever Ago, although still interestingly. In “Hinnom, TX,” the narrator briefly mentions “the Noachide / bodies wrapped in white / stranded every pain.” The Noachide laws were a set of laws purportedly given to Noah after his descent from the ark, which were to govern the acts of all in the postdiluvian world. The reference is oblique, and it is left as such.
In “Towers,” Vernon uses a more extended metaphor. The first hint of religious imagery is in the evocative “sacrum” in the bridge, which can refer not only to one of the body’s bones but also, per its Latin roots, a “holy place” or “holy thing,” particularly in Catholic circles. Whereas the rest of the song does move around the body of some unstated subject (sacrum, liver, tongue, and sternum), it closes with a picture of an anti-church: “Oh the sermons are the first to rest / smoke on Sundays when you’re drunk and dressed / out the hollows where the swallows rest.” Disregarding the organized ritual of Sunday worship, the narrator heads out to nature, to see the birds while hungover and smoking.
I don’t know how you house the sin
Between Bon Iver, Bon Iver and 22, A Million, Vernon penned a song for Zach Braff’s 2014 film Wish I Was Here. “Heavenly Father” signals a shift in Vernon’s songwriting. In retrospect, this is obvious by the time 22, A Million is released at the end of 2016. Fans of Bon Iver were anxious for a new album, but it would be a couple of years before the next studio album from the songwriter.
“Heavenly Father” serves as a transition in Vernon’s discography. The link between it and Bon Iver, Bon Iver is certainly stronger than it and For Emma, but the movement toward what would become 22, A Million is unmistakable. Nevertheless, you get the sense while listening to “Heavenly Father” that Vernon is still “playing with” synthetization as an irreplaceable feature of the song. Perhaps this is why “Heavenly Father” can be “traditionally” composed and performed without losing its force, while “715 – CR∑∑KS” requires the Messina to convey itself appropriately; we’ll discuss that aspect more below.
In any event, from the title of the song to the lyrical content, Vernon’s wrestling with god is undeniable. The significance of the song ending on a question should not be missed. “Heavenly Father” closes on an unresolved note: “Is all that he offers a safety in the end?” In fact, the entire final verse is a frustrated cry to this silent figure. Our narrator has been alienated from god, wondering now in his separation if all that this heavenly father can give is postmortem security.
Moreover, the narrator finds god not in the ritual of organized religion or in the holy writ but in “the howling wind,” which revelation has made him “free.” The transcendent being, who purportedly governs the universe, cannot be bothered to answer the petitioner. And so, the petitioner turns inward and discovers the satisfaction of the immanent: nature, the inner space, and the other. A simultaneously transcendent and immanent god has no place here; all that can remain is a pantheistic god who is everywhere and in everything, which prompts the confusion: “I don’t know how you house the sin.”
I better fold my clothes
When 22, A Million was first released in September of 2016, fans were confused. What happened to the familiar melodic space of Bon Iver’s earlier albums? What’s with all of the computer-generated dissonance? Is there a real instrument on this album? 22, A Million was certainly off-putting at first, but the more I listened to it the more it grew on me. I began to see in it the same things I loved about Vernon’s earlier albums: beautiful lyrics, subtle harmonizations, and a serious grappling with the world, with god, and with ourselves.
While the sound of 22, A Million starkly contrasts his earlier work, do Vernon’s lyrics in his newest album point toward a substantial change? Inasmuch as they are different, sure, but we’ll see that what’s changed in 22, A Million from For Emma and Bon Iver is at its core an intensification of beliefs already held. That is, Vernon has not turned around but has entrenched himself in latent, partially-formed (or partially-expressed) beliefs concerning himself, the world, and god. What do the album’s extra-lyrical elements contribute to this idea?
22, A Million makes extensive use of synthetization, which demarcates it from Vernon’s earlier work. Though, again, we should note that 22, A Million is not the first album on which Vernon has toyed with synthesized sounds; Blood Bank, the 2009 EP on which Vernon subtly dabbled with Autotune, so influenced Kanye West that it helped facilitate a mammoth trend in popular music.
Vernon seems to have grown in his own facility with synthetization, even using a newly developed tool called “the Messina,” which creates a “huge, choral sound” per its co-creator Christ Messina. In fact, Vernon’s capacity to use the machine has rendered the songs from 22, A Million as in essence impossible to recreate without also recreating the Messina-effect, among others. As beautiful as a cover like this is, the distortive elements are missing, and the song is worse for it. Because Vernon has so deeply implanted distortion and synthetization into the life of the song, to attempt the music of 22, A Million without its inhuman, suprahuman components is to lose the album’s soul, as it were. In other words, “The medium is the message.”
So, what do his distortions and synthetizations mean? What is communicated? There are probably a number of things, but the one I can’t escape is the idea of the inaccessibility of one’s interior by another. That is to say, we are ourselves complex and contradictory beings, and we can barely know ourselves truly; others certainly cannot pierce the veil with certainty. 22, A Million‘s songs do not invite participation from the audience–not at the level of performance. The audience can listen and be carried along with the song, but these are not pop songs designed to get everybody singing along. They’re an experience to be enjoyed, or reflected upon. Synthetization works against participation, because, try as you might, it’s impossible to replicate the Messina-effect without a similar tool to change your voice.
Further, difficult-to-replicate seems to be at least part of the rationale behind Vernon’s choice of song titles. The first song is titled “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, which is comprehensible but, admittedly, odd. Most of the songs contain a symbol of some kind (e.g., “21 M♢♢N WATER” and “666 ʇ”), with perhaps the most inexplicable being “____45_____”. Vernon’s decision to intelligibly though unclearly “spell” his titles through symbols suggests a disincentivized participation. Most people can hardly reference the song appropriately because of the obscurity of the symbols used.
Finally, every song title contains one number or another, and his lyrical videos are filled with iconography. While theories abound about an intended numerology, I’m satisfied with explaining the numbers and icons with the symbols: they are on a surface level self-explanatory, but going any deeper is likely a fool’s errand. Descending into another’s inner self is impossible; all that we have access to is their actions, their own “surface level.”
What do all of these elements suggest together? We are enigmatic creatures, who hardly know ourselves, who cannot deeply know others, and who (maybe or maybe not) live under a similarly unknowable god. We’ll see below that Vernon’s lyrics advance this thesis quite a bit, particularly with reference to god.
What does Vernon actually say about god? Quite a lot in 22, A Million, and by comparison far more than in previous albums. Moreover, he moves more deeply into introspection than his previous albums.
Beginning with the first track on the album, “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” reads as a fabulistic retelling of the expulsion from Eden, but one which excoriates god for his silence: “All these years / there I find you marked in constellation / there isn’t a ceiling in our garden / and then I draw an ear on you / so I can speak into the silence.”
However, the narrator isn’t met with kindness or with covenant loyalty. Rather, “I have carried consecration / and then you expelled all decision / as I stand up with a vision.” The song concludes with a “scission,” whether between the narrator and his creator or within the narrator himself, and the refrain, “It’ll all be over soon.” What once was whole has now been ripped apart–a perception of self not uncommon among my peers. An overriding sense of alienation pervades our world, exacerbated by our online lives, but there does not seem to be a healthy recourse (at least, outside the reintegrating work of god).
“33 ‘GOD'” is far and away the most explicitly religious song on the album. The lyric video displays at the front Psalm 22, which Jesus invokes as he hangs on his cross. Thirty-three being the popularly-held year of life at which Jesus was crucified, the song title and psalm together invoke the image of the Christ.
The song poignantly samples Paolo Nutini’s “Iron Sky,” taking Nutini’s “we find god and religions” and reworking it into, “I find god and religion.” It’s engineered in such a way as to sound as though it’s emerging from deep within the narrator’s psyche, perhaps unwittingly.
This pseudo-messianic figure has “found god and religion,” but he’s disinterested. The bridge expresses the postmodern sentiment best, “Said I woulda walked across any thousand lands / (no, not really if you can’t) / I didn’t need you that night / not gonna need you anytime / was gonna take it as it goes / I could go forward in the light / well, I better fold my clothes.” The narrator senses the transcendental call to embrace “the light,” but he doesn’t want it; he rejects it in favor of the mundane: I better fold my clothes. Ours is a distracted age, which makes the contemplative meditation necessary for rich, integral interior life difficult if not impossible. We’ll settle for completing things on our to-do list rather than striving for transcendence, which is what our hearts yearn for.
The song ends tragically, just as “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” does: “All my goodness to show / why are you so far from saving me? / Why are you so far from saving me?” Seeking an answer or assistance, the narrator is left with silence. Worse than “Heavenly Father,” who can only offer “a safety in the end,” this Christ-figure has been rejected at his point of greatest need.
In a curious reversal of the Christ-motif of “33 ‘GOD’,” the song “666 ʇ” pulls from the mythology surrounding the devil and the antichrist. Even in the title, the final character looks like an inverted cross, simultaneously associated with the apostle Peter’s crucifixion and satanism. A fitting confluence of religious obsession and suffering, “666 ʇ” and “33 ‘GOD'” together suggest an analogous Manichaeism, the dualistic cult with which Augustine argued in his Confessions and which held that good and evil exist in eternal conflict.
The actual lyrical content of “666 ʇ” speaks of an internal struggle with the narrator’s unanswered questions and, moreover, his place in the world. How does he belong? “Well, I’d stun and I’d stammer / help me reach the hammer / for then what will I ask?”
As one would expect, he takes this confusion and turns to god, praying for assistance, “I’m still standing in / still standing in the need of prayer,” but, receiving no answer, implores, “Just come off your kneel.” Again, frustration with a silent god pours out into the lyrics of this song. If god won’t answer prayers, there’s no point; you can hardly be certain that he’s there. Better to find divine comfort in nature and introspection than through a purely external grasping for a transcendent being.
22, A Million‘s final song is “00000 Million.” Fittingly, it’s thoroughly apocalyptic. The narrator yearns for “that grove … where days have no numbers,” a phrasing reminiscent of 2 Peter 3.8, another apocalyptic section of the New Testament. But the song itself closes with the refrain, “It harms me / It harms me / It harms me / I’ll let it in.” This tension between a promised solace and a present willingness to not only undergo suffering but embrace it–this is closer to Christian praxis than Vernon may believe. “Gnosis … ain’t gonna buy the groceries,” the narrator affirms, but he welcomes the responsibility to suffer well, looking for that time “when days have no numbers.”
Incorporating the Hidden God
What do we do with this? Vernon is a postmodern prophet for the alienated and irreligious-though-spiritually-concerned. He says poetically that which could be construed as my generation’s orthodoxy. This orthodoxy, however, conflicts with Christian orthodoxy, to be sure. God has been made known–not only as transcendent but also as immanent, not merely as “heavenly father” but also as the incarnate Son and indwelling Spirit. God tabernacled among us, and he made his home within us. Does that satisfy the existential dissatisfaction? Inasmuch as such dissatisfaction is grounded in rote ritual and exteriorized “spirituality,” certainly, but it’s never merely that. An ontological shift has to take place, in which we are remade to desire the things of god, but the desire for god to be present and to hear petitions is a good thing–we must merely be willing to hear and to acknowledge his response.
It’s not as though Vernon’s conception of god-as-enigma is wholly unorthodox, however. In fact, eastern theology is the foremost tradition for apophatic theology, in which god is known through denying things of him rather than attributing to him. God is, in this sense, unknowable except by negation. Yet, there is a more significant sense of god’s unknowability, one which finds itself lauded in western theology.
Drawing on Elizabeth Palmer’s Faith in a Hidden God, we can look back to two historical interpretations of the binding of Isaac. Martin Luther and Søren Kierkegaard both offered anagogical interpretations of the narrative, in which Abraham, who has demonstrated trust in the Lord up to this point, has now been commanded by Yahweh to take his promised son to a mountain in order to sacrifice him. Luther and Kierkegaard draw the audience not merely to the narrative but to the god described therein, who is shrouded in mystery and darkness and whom we are no longer certain we know. Who is this god who promises and delivers a son but who also commands us to kill him? Of course, the goal is not to leave the God of Israel unknown but to encounter him truly–and to be changed as a result, whether to a life of faith (Luther) or to a life of love (Kierkegaard).
In much the same way, the Christian can truly affirm god’s hiddenness to the world. The unbeliever may not truly know who god is, and they may have a multitude of confused notions about this god. N.T. Wright, reflecting on his time as chaplain, describes this encounter well:
For seven years I was College Chaplain and [sic] Worcester College, Oxford. Each year I used to see the first year undergraduates individually for a few minutes, to welcome them to the college and make a first acquaintance. Most were happy to meet me; but many commented, often with slight embarrassment, “You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.”
I developed [a] stock response: “Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?” This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word “God” as a univocal, always meaning the same thing. So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up the in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally “intervening” to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven. Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of “spy-in-the-sky” theology: “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either.”
At this point the undergraduate would look startled. Then, perhaps, a faint look of recognition; it was sometimes rumored that half the college chaplains at Oxford were atheists. “No,” I would say; “I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.” What most people mean by “god” in late-modern western culture simply is not the mainstream Christian meaning.
The same is true for the meanings of “god” within postmodernity. We are starting to be more aware that many people give allegiance to “gods” and “goddesses” which are personifications of forces of nature and life. An obvious example is the earth-goddess, Gaia, revered by some within the New Age movement. Following the long winter of secularism, in which most people gave up believing in anything “religious” or “spiritual,” the current revival of spiritualities of all sorts is an inevitable swing of the pendulum, a cultural shift in which people have been able once more to celebrate dimensions of human existence which the Enlightenment had marginalized. But one cannot assume that what people mean by “god” or “spirit,” “religion” or “spirituality” within these movements bears very much relation to Christianity. I even heard, not long ago, an Italian justifying the pornography which featured his high-profile wife on the grounds that its portrayal of sexuality was deeply “religious.” The Pope, he thought, would welcome it.
Eros has of course been well-known to students of divinities time out of mind. But only when a culture has forgotten, through long disuse, how god-language actually works could someone assume that the deeply “religious” feelings, evoking a sense of wonder and transcendence, which serious eroticism (and lots of other things) can produce, could be straightforwardly identified with anything in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Did they ever hear of paganism?
It is vital that in our generation we inquire once more: to what, or rather whom, does the word “god” truly refer? And if, as Christians, we bring together Jesus and God in some kind of identity, what sort of an answer does that provide to our question?
We must acknowledge the truth that god is unknown except through his self-disclosure in Jesus himself. Again, as Wright puts it:
In Jesus himself, I suggest we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life: the loving God, rolling up his sleeves (Isa 52:10) to do in person the job that no one else could do, the creator God giving new life[,] the God who works through his created world and supremely through his human creatures, the faithful God dwelling in the midst of his people, the stern and tender God relentlessly opposed to all that destroys or distorts the good creation, and especially human beings, but recklessly loving all those in need and distress. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall carry the lambs in his arms; and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:11). It is the OT portrait of YHWH, but it fits Jesus like a glove.
Sometimes, even for Christians, we can fear that there is a vindictive and petty tyrant who hides behind the back of the merciful Jesus. We have no need to fear this, and unveiling this disclosure to the world should be our joy. God is not divided into two pieces, where Jesus holds back a wrathful father from punishing his children. Those who have placed their faith in the risen Son have been united to him, and as such they cannot be rejected from the Triune God without tearing apart that perichoretic and eternal joy. The hidden god has been made known in the Son. We are no longer alienated from god–even from ourselves and those around us–but have been brought back into shalom and abundant life.
 I don’t want to suggest that Vernon is an existentialist, but his work attracts me for many of the same reasons that I’m attracted to the existential philosophy: he takes our place in the world, and our responsibility to act, seriously, in a way that I rarely see others consider it. There’s an angst and a frustration with the ways things are that can only be birthed in sustained reflection on and engagement with both the exterior and interior worlds. I strive for the same, and I do not suffer fools gladly who purport to offer wisdom without reflection.