My story isn’t very unique. It’s not very poignant. It doesn’t include use some of the greatest lyrics of recent times to explain a time in my life perfectly. It’s not even going to be that emotional. It’s just a a set of songs that happened to be released at the most difficult time of my life.
August 15th 2016, Bon Iver returned with a pair of new songs, each with equally baffling titles, production, lyrics, and layers to uncover. I was so excited to hear new music from one of my all-time favourite acts. I spent my birthday at one of their gigs for the Bon Iver, Bon Iver album. I was ready for the rest of the year to be dominated with this intriguing music, I was excited and baffled at the same time. Exactly one month later I was recovering from surgery I had undergone the day before; just three days before the surgery, I’d been told that I had a cancerous lump on one of my testicles. I was even more baffled.
22, A Million is not an album I can relate to from this experience. It’s the most heartfelt music from an act who are so synonymous with obscuring discussions of broken relationships through a Vocoder that they basically invented the ‘Sad Electronic Folk’ genre. Their most immediate and most distanced work yet, it just happened to be released around 2 weeks after I had been in surgery.
It’s all I was looking forward to. Nothing had changed my anticipation, only the context in which it sat within my life. It was no longer just an album that was being released, given that I was struggling to move around following such invasive surgery, it was a date I clearly had in my head that I wanted to aim for. On the 30th of September 2016 I would walk down to the HMV near my flat and buy my copy of 22, A Million.
I did it, and probably could have done it a week earlier given I had already made the decision to return to work. In some ways, when I hear “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” I remember the physical pain I felt at the time. It’s a strange sensation, one that I can’t really explain without it sounding bonkers.
I’m consistently in awe of the sounds that Justin Vernon created here, where the moments that truly stand out for me are so obtuse when written down that I find it hard to write about them objectively. For me the connection is obvious, “8 (circle)” tears me into pieces every time I hear it. The warmth of opener “22 (Over Soon)” right through to closer “00000 Million” gives a sense of closure that I never feel like I ever got back then.
For 34 minutes of each day, it let me focus on something I was going to love before I had even considered what I was going through. A voice that reminds me of my family, but chopped up until it’s so unfamiliar that it’s something completely new. There’s a moment on “29 #Stafford APTS” where the vocals are so distorted with crackle that for days I genuinely thought my CD was defective. 22, A Million was music alive with the emotions I was holding onto, but it also gave me a glimpse of the future just a little bit.
Reading the words ‘Sad Sax of Shit’ alongside the track listing in the terrifically intricate album packaging I don’t think I’d ever related to anything more in my life. I was sad. Extremely sad in fact. I’m still pretty sad at times when I think about it, but for the days, weeks, months and years that have followed every time I spend a quiet moment with 22, A Million that feeling dissipates. I am the Sad Sax of Shit, but I am also “715 – CR∑∑KS” and “29 #Strafford APTS” and “____45_____” . Absolutely meaningless words that somehow became some of the most meaningful music of my life.
‘threw the meaning out the door
there’s no meaning anymore’
‘too much for me to pick up
not sure what forgiveness is,
we’ve galvanised the squall of it all
I can leave behind the harbour’
‘If it’s harmed it’s harmed me it’ll harm me I let it in’
Words by Sam Atkins