Lexicon Valley

The Strange and Searching Linguistic Experiments on Bon Iver’s 22, a Million

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver performs at the Sydney Opera House on March 11, 2012.

Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Bon Iver’s chart-topping new album, 22, a Million, is a dense, cryptic mashup. Musically, Justin Vernon qua Bon Iver overlays his earthy, aching melisma with processed, robotic-sounding samples. His lyrics leap from mundane acts of folding his clothes to religious images of folding his hands in prayer. The track titles are numerological riddles, the album artwork is marked with alienlike symbols, and yet its visceral core requires no decoding. These polyvocal textures tell of personal, relational, and spiritual breakdowns and reconfigurations—and, just as dramatically, linguistic ones, too.

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22, a Million’s track titles are conspicuously strange. For instance, Track 1 is “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, Track 3 “715 - CRΣΣKS,” and Track 9 “____45_____.” Each reads like a line from a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem composed in The Matrix. The mélange of numbers, symbols, and typography suggest a relationship between signifier and signified that is unstable and slippery, as if to scramble what we can express with our words and the meaning we can access through them. As John Ashbery, whose poetry never rested in probing for a language to transcend the experience of individual consciousness, articulates this linguistic predicament in “Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror”: There are “no words to say what it really is.” Vernon’s titles enact a breakdown of meaning, at once exposing a foreign code when our familiar letters have fallen away and hacking into our dull, ordinary language with an exotic cipher.

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Like his semiotics, Vernon’s lyrics also reach for an elusive meaning. In the opening lyrics of “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” he stammers the word fever, as if always circling around but never quite settling on it: “Fe, fever rest…feever rest.” In “715 - CRΣΣKS,” he drifts in a stream of sonic associations: “Her, heron hurried away.” Elsewhere, syllables self-generate in intuitive but arbitrary wordplay, attracted not by sense but by pure sound. Offering little other text to orient his point, he elliptically affiliates such pairs as sinking/synching, ore/core, and unorphaned/northern. The few, clear ideas Vernon is able to convey through a broken language only underscore futility and failure: “Threw the meaning out the door…There ain’t no meaning anymore,” he sings on “29 #Strafford APTS.” “Without knowing what the truth is,” he twice intones on “____45_____.”  Again, Ashbery: Our words “seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.”

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But seek we must, a fate the artist is condemned to, as Vernon knows well on 22, a Million: “I will run…Have to crawl,” he insists on “8 (circle).” If the language given to us is broken, then we must build a new one. And Vernon does just that by literally forging a new vocabulary. His coinages sound like words taken from a metaphysics in a universe just one dimension removed from us. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” features “dedicoding every daemon,” which appears to blend dedicating with coding or decoding. Dedicoding has the sense of reckoning with the attendant forces in his life, creative and destructive, through some devotional ritual. “29 #Strafford APTS” presents paramind after the first chorus, which we might take to mean “beside” or “beyond the mind,” an attempt to label an out-of-consciousness experience that accompanies loss. Wordplay in “666 ʇ” stumbles on waundry: “Ain’t that some kind of quandry–waundry.” Waundry may join quandary, itself clipped here to the colloquial quandry, with wander, pointing to the existential situation of “looking for something but we don’t know what it is.” And on “8 (circle),” Vernon styles himself an “Astuary King.” Astuary seems to marry aster, Greek for “star,” and estuary, where an ocean meets a river. We might imagine this astuary as a celestial threshold, with Vernon stuck straddling the material and spiritual realms it demarcates. In his newfangled idiolect, we can see Vernon trying to think through—to resolve and move on from—the pain and confusion of liminality, transitionality, transience, and uncertainty.

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We can’t be sure what, exactly, Vernon intends in his enigmatic track titles or what he wants his word coinages to signify. But there’s no doubt that he’s not simply experimenting with music on 22, a Million: He’s also experimenting with language itself. Of course, his particular efforts are not new: Postmodern poetics has long grappled with semiotic breakdown and hip-hop artists have a tradition of inventing new words. But it’s a compelling and challenging idea to dramatize on a popular album: Our words fail, but they’re what we have to work with.