Ever since music was able to be played for the masses, there has been a counter-cultural aspect to it, often wielded as a social tool by the masses to speak out on issues typically discussed in a hushed tone. From fiercely political music, to the intensely personal variety, to the outright revolutionary, the art form has taken on, and reflected, the mood of the times, and has in turn, influenced the thinking of generations.
The current crop of music has embraced this rebellious, anti-establishment spirit of music across the spectrum. While explicitly political music – in terms of the lyrics – still exists in abundance, there is an increasing tendency to display this irreverence through the music as a whole – to make the listener uncomfortable, to question their notions of what defines ‘good’ music and hence change music itself. There are several proponents of this visceral sort of a listening experience, but two unconventional musicians, having released albums within a short span of each other, exemplify this trend – rapper and musical anarchist Danny Brown, and master of the insular, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Both these musicians have different approaches to their music, each unconventional and left-of-field in their own way, with Danny being the in-your-face troubled rockstar, and Justin being the esoteric recluse. And Atrocity Exhibition and 22, A Million, Danny and Bon Iver’s respective albums, are the peak of their disregard for musical conventions. And their (un)holy results are stunning, in more ways than one.
Atrocity Exhibition is the opposite of pleasant; it’s filthy and brutal, a no-holds barred stream of debauchery and tumult. Danny Brown has long lived on the fringes of hip-hop, whether it be due to his abrasive rapping voice, discomfiting persona or the translation of his darkest parts and times into his music. But with this album, Danny has abandoned any notions of conforming to traditional hip hop sounds, instead plunging into the depths of left-field hip-hop and electronic production and subject matter. Talk of drug use is rampant on the album, as expected, but drained of any glamour. Perhaps best exemplified on the chorus of White Lines, which goes
Lines and lines of coke
Heart beating hope it ain’t my time to go
Take another snort
No way no no
it’s clear that Danny has realized that his lifestyle has only one end, but he’s crossed all lines of sanity when it comes to this addiction. He has no expectation of redemption, instead choosing to pour his bleakest thoughts into his music, and document his ride towards the inevitable end. This is replicated in his attitude towards sex, rapping on Rolling Stone:
Even if she fuck me
I still know life a bitch
While the dreary hedonism is certainly disconcerting, Danny also raps of his many conflicts, and the violence he has been, and continues to be witness to. With his ‘normal’ voice, reserved for his most sobering songs, he raps on Tell Me What I Don’t Know
How long will it last?
Never ending race, chasin’ cash
One lane going wrong way ’til I crash
describing his past with an oft-repeated nihilism. Today, similarly, is a joyless rumination on the travails of his current success, juxtaposed against that of his community and environment.
The production, though, is the most evidently anti-mainstream, anti-radio, aspect of Danny’s music. Combining layers of electronica, hip-hop and post-punk, there’s grisly percussion, glitch-y synths and haunting, psychedelic samples. The contours of the beat grow and punch, or shrink and crawl under your skin to present Danny Brown’s irreverence- all rules of listenability thrown out the window. The groaning, crashing beat of Downward Spiral – the first song on the album – challenges the listener to stick around, its grotesqueness carrying Danny’s dark tales, rapped off-beat. The Madlib-esque Lost, meanwhile, with its ghostly vocal sample has Danny throwing out punchline after another.
Atrocity Exhibition, then, is a piece of utter chaos, interspersed with tales of sordid successes, that most musical audience would be turned off by. And yet, it exists as the ultimate middle finger to commercial music, backed by the cult following Danny has garnered over the years, an island in a sea of ‘safe’ music.
Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, on the other hand is a work of detached beauty. The electronic elements and distortion that finds its way into the production is a departure from their acoustic stylings, and the lyrics have become even more esoteric. However, the core of the album is still very much Bon Iver, with the music delivering the emotional equivalent of a sledgehammer, rendered in the haunting, layered voice of Justin Vernon.
The album is possibly the most challenging of Bon Iver’s discography, with a lexicon that communicates emotions and moments beyond the pedestrian, in words – existent and invented – that appear carefully pruned to strike the right chord at the right moment, yet maintain the enigma. Sample the many neologisms that Justin litters the album with – ‘paramind’ on 29 #Strafford APTS, ‘fuckified’ on 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ – that infuse the words used to describe universal emotions with abstract ideas. There is also plenty of repurposed religious imagery here, inverted into the voice of a disbeliever, one disillusioned with his own creative process, and the way of the world at large, as Justin croons on 666 ʇ
I’m still standing in
Still standing in the need of prayer
The need of prayer
No, I don’t know the path
Or what kind of pith I’ve amassed
Long lines of questions
The listener is left to decipher an intricately woven, highly conceptual exploration of Justin Vernon’s psyche, a narrative wrought of creative exhaustion and anxiety, the soul of the sagacious recluse laid bare.
The most significantly unconventional aspect however, especially when compared to past Bon Iver albums, is the electronically layered production and vocals. For listeners who’ve been following Justin’s collaborations with Kanye on Yeezus between their last album and now, this direction isn’t particularly surprising; but to hear it in its own space here is a tremendous experience. The distortion-heavy trot of 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ is the most abrasive of the instrumentals on the album, but one that settles into a strange melody as the vocals click into its notches (or is it the other way around?). 33 “GOD” begins with a medley of Justin’s vocals, pitched vocal samples and gentle strings, soaring midway into epic percussion. 21 M♢♢N WATER is a vision – punctuating a hauntingly minimal track with synth-y reeds, one that feels mystical as much for its music as its lyrics.
The zenith of this creative experimentation comes on ____45_____, best described by Justin Vernon himself
It feels [like] a conversation [with saxophonist Mike Lewis], like an instrument that only two people can play”; one that explored many of the album’s themes: “It’s sorrow and pain explaining joy, and family, and fear of death, and love.”
The aforementioned ‘instrument’ was invented by the band themselves, as described by Vernon:
We made an instrument. Messina and Francis helped make this instrument, and everyone before that — [talk box innovator] Robert Troutman, who did the most amazing vocoding in the world. We all made an instrument together. And then me and Lewis, the instrument we were playing was only possible to play as two people, and it was just us making music as freely as humanly possible.
The result is a condensation of the thematic and musical spectrum of the album into 2 minutes of 46 seconds of swirling melodies and striking instrumentation, leading into the album closer, 00000 Million, a singularly gorgeous, emotionally devastating track that leaves the listener breathless, not yet comprehending the magnitude of this masterpiece of music, but strangely, wholly invested.
Danny Brown and Bon Iver are diametrically opposite in the way they present their music on these albums – one a monstrosity you cannot tear your ears away from, and the other a body of unnerving, enigmatic beauty. And yet they have the same eventuality: each challenges its listener to reassess their notions of music, and to pay attention to these auteurs that subvert traditional definitions. The ones that succeed here, are richly rewarded.