It's fall, so everything's looking real pretty and waiting to die and rightly we've got new albums from Bon Iver—the tenderhearted, oblique "22, A Million," about existential dread—and Danny Brown—the acrid, honest "Atrocity Exhibition," about the destitute loops of addiction.
On "22, A Million" lots of lyrics refer to standing around, waiting, and so on—degrading moments of indecision or pause where Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon feels vulnerable to others and to the scraggily forces of the world at-large. The first lyrics you hear on opening track '22 (Over Soon)' is Vernon, voice all chipmunk'd, saying, "it might be over soon," a mantra, a promise, a fact of life. From there it's nothing but ecstatic song fragments soundtracking ripples of insight—like the glob of saxophones braying on the climax of '21 Moon Water' to name just one.
With all of its treated electronic vocals, exponential doubling of instruments, and distortion, "22, A Million" at times sounds as though its songs are stuck between stations on the left of the dial. Not "left of the dial" in the "where college rock dwells" meaning of the phrase as the Replacements intended, but what radio from say 91.9 on down to 88.1 features these days amid late capitalism: a mix of old Christian music, radio static, NPR mindfulness, corporate indie rock, and the nothingness of signals and stations now dead. The songs here feel foreign, alien, even ancient, as if you're missing some key information so all you can do is obtain a few feels from it, but oh what feels.
Okay, so here's a confession/anecdote/whatever that is related to "22, A Million" I think: I work too much and I do things you're not supposed to do and things you're supposed to do way too much, to the point where they're not fun or useful anymore, but hey, you got to do something with all this time on earth, right? My toxic extra-ness created a kind of perfect storm of dome-rattling meaninglessness the other night after a joint full of Headband—a trippy tangle of OG Kush and Sour Diesel, named as such because smokers allegedly say that when they smoke it they feel pressure and pushing on their head, as if they're wearing a headband (weed is so stupid)—got me lost taking a walk. I sat down, in a rando place in Remington, looked at my dog and he looked back, which made me feel guilty. I texted friends and got grounded. I focused on Headband's taste, a kind of creamy flavor, like a mid-tier beer, and I eventually felt hinged enough to get up and walk. A Bon Iver moment maybe: Sad bro transcends a minor blip of anxiety and keeps going, none of which makes the bigger issues less so, but hey.
"Atrocity Exhibition" begins with Danny Brown, over fumbling "Breaking Bad"-ish blues, describing a gnarly, drug-dipped night of fucking: "Had a threesome last night, ain't matter what it cost/ Couldn't it get hard, tried to stuff it in soft/ Had to fuck 'em both raw, keep my fingers crossed." Brown's lines there aren't as rummy and "poetic" as "it might be over soon," but they too suggest emotional improvisation, grinning and bearing it as all we've got. Often, "Atrocity Exhibition" sounds like someone trying to dance the pain away and just not being able to do so: 'Ain't It Funny' is a darkly comic, coke-tingly Ed Banger homage and 'When It Rain,' a zippy ghettotech banger about how bad stuff just keeps happening and happening and happening.
And while "Atrocity Exhibition" exhibits and examines an addict's solipsism—debatably more entertaining than a folkie's "life sure is hard, what does it all mean" solipsism—it also has bursts of empathy and understanding: a quick, just short of lecture-y line about dealer responsibility ("Your work killing fiends because you cut it with Fentanyl") and nods to larger problems such as deindustrialization and police brutality ("Cops killing niggas everyday like protocol"). The record also just makes you feel, well, not good. Forty-seven or so minutes of squirming guilt.
And here is a thing related to "Atrocity Exhibition," please bear with me: A decade ago, just days before a friend of mine died, shit was already getting wooly. One night, I drank too much promethazine and I could feel my heart beating so hard I thought it might dislocate my shoulder. I was dripping sweat. I went outside to cool off and just hoped I wasn't going to die. I didn't tell my friends who were there what was going on; they would have handled it all wrong. I realized that if being outside didn't calm me down (it did), I'd need to ask one of them to drive me to the hospital. I'd encourage them to drive up to the hospital and just leave me there. Don't stop in, don't call my family, definitely don't stay. I knew they wouldn't do that though. They'd want to stay and "help." They'd feel "guilty" otherwise. I realized as I ran that hypothetical through my head that they weren't very good friends, they cared in a way I don't need friends to care.
A Danny Brown moment, I think: When dire circumstances rearrange ethics and morals permanently and lean you toward insight even as you also realize, "Oh wow, I'm a totally lost dirtbag, but oh well, we'll work on that later on."
Still, Brown's always laughing a little at all his suicidal seriousness (asides that are the equivalent of that "Ian Curtis rides a roller coaster" video) or pulling back and at least displaying the perspicacity to duly note the ridiculous situation he's in.
We demand our rappers bleed out all their fuck-ups for us to hear and evaluate ("yo he's real!") because we also expect to get the other part of the story: How it ain't like that no more. You don't get that here. It's still all kind of like that. Still bad, just a different kind of bad. "Broke serving fiends, got rich became an addict," Brown Byronically chirps. "Ain't it funny how it happens?"
We like our sensitive troubadours to transcend too, but that doesn't happen much on "22, A Million." Really, it's an album wherein Vernon's relatively straightforward beer gut melancholy is done away with. "But all I'm trying to do is get my feet out from the crease," Vernon grumbles at one point, urgently, robotically, all vibrating desperation and who knows what it means exactly, but it conveys that he's stuck. Often when Vernon freaks out on "22, A Million"—when the vocals shake, snap, or crackle—the tone is accusatory and it's hard to hear a retro-formatted folkie angry and not think it's aimed at a woman out there though, because that's what dudes do when they've got guitars in their hands. At the least it's probably also aimed at God or a higher something or other on "22, A Million" as well.
"22, A Million" and "Atrocity Exhibition" side-eye the idea that things change for the better (or change at all) and instead offer up a cornucopia of coping mechanisms, ultimately leaving listeners hanging when it comes to resolution. As records about going through some thangs, they're short on solutions, and as experimental missives within their respective subgenres, lyrical hip-hop and indie folk, they sound peeled apart and cracked—respondent examples of insular maximalism. It's odd to make statement records that leave listeners down in it like this. Everything changes eventually. Things, they're good and then they're not, you know? No shit it gets better, Vernon and Brown suggest, that is, until it doesn't again.