If there’s anything Justin Vernon has got down to a science, it’s crafting a moment. You know what I’m talking about. These moments aren’t explainable—the best sensations lose power if the minute you start to inspect them on a literal level. Why does it feel good to belly laugh or put your lips on another person’s lips? Surely, it’s not just a set of syncopated muscle contractions or two facial orifices meeting, but the tipsy brain flood that occurs the instant it happens. We’re fueled by seconds when the nonstop, inexorable ebb and flow of action clips for a split second—not enough time to calculate, not enough time to make sense, just enough time for a visceral reaction.
Although only comprised of 10 tracks, 22, A Million, the first album from Bon Iver in five years, is lavish with hair-triggering moments. Here are the 10 of the best:
Note: After retrospectively examining my list of “best” moments as a whole, it’s clear to me that my definition of “best” is interchangeable with “most likely to reduce you to a shaky tear puddle at the base of a pine tree without knowing how you got there.” But, honestly, why else would you listen to Bon Iver?
Yep, right out of the gate of this album: just a friendly reminder of our unpredictable, fragile mortality and the possible end of all things at any given moment: “It might be over soon.” Thank god that thought’s quickly pacified by the soothing multi-part harmony owl coos. It’s almost enough make you forget your looming mortality. Almost.
0:01 on “10 d E A T H b R E a S T (envelope emojis?)
When I heard this album for the first time, I was at the Eaux Claires festival, and Bon Iver was playing the whole album for the first time live. The start of this song was jarring to say the least. The first percussive notes rang through the field like thunder to a still and silent audience. There was a collective realization among the first notes of the album’s second track that the croony, rustic days of For Emma were behind Bon Iver: not forgotten, still visible in the rearview mirror, but Vernon was stepping forward with muddled, engineered beat.
1:10 on “715 - CRΣΣKS”
Having spent 90% of my life in Eau Claire with the 715 area code and copious creeks to which the title likely refers, I went into my first listen of this track expecting to every feel imaginable. I knew this was about to hit me right in the hometown. What I didn’t expect was to get halfway through and let out an audible gasp, followed by an involuntary “ouch.” One of the most wrenching sounds is when someone’s yell breaks into a sob, and Vernon’s auto-tune breaking as he desperately bleats “Oh, I know it felt right/I had you in my grasp” is the musical equivalent. The rest of this song is so carefully engineered, but for a millisecond, that beautiful, crafted facade cracks and all you can hear is a raw wound.
2:47 on “8 (circle)”
The same unchanging beat runs like a pulse for two-and-a-half minutes on this track, until it doesn’t. It’s sudden, but you don’t have time to process its absence before you’re hit with a vocal eruption—a harmony that builds incrementally until it summits and fades: “I will run all around it/have to crawl/still can’t stop it.” This moment can undoubtedly be attributed to the signature vocals of the Staves, frequent collaborators with Vernon (and actual otherworldly creatures in terms of vocal blending) that have yet to appear on a Bon Iver album until now. Luckily, they’ve graced this one with a promise to repeatedly serve up warm chills.
2:09 on “33 God”
Sometimes, it’s not the peak that the most crushing, it’s what leads up to it. Slow burns are grating. The minutes, hours, days, when your gut knows something is over, but you refuse to admit it to yourself are brutal. As the song builds to its emotional climax, Vernon sounds like he’s pleading, convincing himself: “I didn’t need you that night/I didn’t need you any time/Just gonna take it as it goes/I could go forward in the light.”
2:09 on “29 #Strafford APTS”
Let’s be honest here. Even if this new album is vastly different from their last albums, what the hell would I be doing writing a Bon Iver moments list without at least one moment of falsetto so pure that you kind of want to knock the wind out of yourself just to have your breath taken away like that again? If this song’s a contemplative October walk, 2:09 is the part where you slip on a pile of wet leaves and just lay there staring at the sky, wondering if it’s worth it to get back up again or just let gravity pull tears out of your eyes and onto the sidewalk.
2:37 on “666 ʇ”
The fact that the title of this track includes the devil’s number and an upside down cross is likely to welcome the emotional demon that your soul will expel each time you hit the 2:37 mark. The wandering bassline and rapid-fire drums drop out to just a small chorus yelling “I’m still standing in!” I say yell, but it’s infinitely, heart-breakingly more tender in nature—gentle, almost tired. The vocals sound far away, almost subdued.
2:48 on “21 M diamond diamond N WATER”
This track builds in smooth little ripples. Nature’s influences on Vernon’s music have always been palpable, but this song draws pretty directly from the soundscape of Wisconsin waters. The song smoulders, but over that a confusion of loon-like clarinet lines. They start distantly but peak in chaos around 2:48, just before fading flawlessly into “8 (circle).”
:58 on “____45_____”
This moment speaks for itself. The horns on this song are bone-chilling at the very least. Every horn line makes me want to lean into my speaker and into the void forever.
0:57 on “0000 Million”
“0000 Million” is a reflective conclusion; the last drunken tune to which you throw your arms around the nearest shoulders, sway, shout a little tearfully. You can listen to it and miss someone without knowing who it is. 57 seconds in, the track introduces the mantra “the days have no numbers;” an assurance we’ll last in some way, our days will last in some way, even amongst the ever-crushing ephemerality of being alive.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.
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