I will not add too many words to the unified chorus of praise for 22, A Million. It is a record so huge, significant, and hotly beautiful that it threatens to melt through the wires of all the devices tasked with transmitting its dispatches back to Earth on its way up and out to join the sun. Let’s leave it at that.
Instead, I want to talk about what happened Thursday afternoon on the corner of Melrose and Formosa. All week, cities around the world compulsively refreshed their Twitter feeds as Bon Iver meted out enigmatic digital fliers. A date, a time, a cross street. Eaux Claire. Brooklyn. Melbourne. Berlin. Copenhagen. London. Amsterdam. Paris. Minneapolis. Mexico City. Los Angeles.
I arrived on the corner of Melrose and Formosa a little after 3. A crowd of 20 or 30 people were already gathered there. The side of the building was tattooed with the mythos of 22, A Million – a clean, cryptic symbolism seemingly unconcerned with cultural or historic consistency.
Someone had brought some speakers. A guy next to me was wearing a terrible tie-dye shirt bearing some quasi-Native American imagery of a wolf’s head inside a dreamcatcher and talking about how he’d found it at the Jewish Women’s Thrift Store.
Out of habit, I guess, I turned to irony.
Before long, a woman arrived carrying some cheap wire shelving, a portable tape player, and several large cardboard boxes full of album art newspapers. Wordlessly, she placed the stereo on the top shelf, inserted a cassette tape, and stocked the rest of the shelves with stacks of newspapers, which disappeared almost as quickly as they were replenished. Behind the tape player, a small sign read, “3 papers per person please. When the music stops, flip the tape.”
Then she pushed play.
What should have been peaceful opening notes of “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” were drowned out by an angry snarl of Melrose traffic and the happy shouts of children getting out of an elementary school across the street. There was some mostly good-humored grumbling about this.
But as the album’s sparse and delicately auto-tuned third track, “715 – CR∑∑KS“, began, a hush fell over everything. Even the car horns faded for a moment. It was as if the entire city reached the end of an exhale at the same time and no one wanted to breathe first.
The sounds of life going on around us played a subtle counterpoint melody to the vulnerable tunes floating tinnily from the little stereo. There was a palpable sense of the fleeting present – that no one would ever get to hear the record quite this way ever again. It occurred to me that this was probably the point all along.
Someone sat cross legged in front of the stereo in meditation. Others listened quietly with heads bent. I saw a woman begin to weep. We sat that way until it was time to flip the tape.
Cynicism is impossible in the face of such sincerity.
A lot of 22, A Million references religion. I’m not immersed enough in the Bon Iver narrative to know what this means, exactly – whether it represents a personal crisis of faith for Justin Vernon or simply provides a useful framework to explore themes of mortality and impermanence – but my religion is music. And there was something about the alter-like scene on that Hollywood street corner that felt awfully prayerful.
At 3:07pm, we were just a bunch of hipsters standing in front of a wall. By 4:02 we had found something that brought us together – a clue to the secret hiding place of human connection.
When the music stops, flip the tape.
Buy or stream 22, A Million here.
Watch new lyric video for the lovely “715 – CR∑∑KS” below.