The mysterious symbols on the cover of Bon Iver’s album 22, A Million were created by Brooklyn-based artist Eric Timothy Carlson. Carlson created a numerical symbol for each track on the album, with his artwork informing some of the final track names.
The symbol for 21 Moon Water, for example, is based on the astronomical symbol for Jupiter, which Carlson came across while exploring combinations of twos and ones. (Moon Water is a reference to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, believed to have a layer of frozen water beneath its surface). Another song, 666, is represented by three blackletter sixes alongside an inverted cross reminiscent of a dagger – a symbol that plays on associations with the number as the mark of the devil.
“Each [numerical symbol] is a matter of many sketches – hundreds of sketches – and a stream-of-consciousness kind of output, retaining an openness to associations and following paths of research and inspiration as they present themselves,” explains Carlson.
“The song symbols are open equations … but they come from a process of intent. They are each a number, that number is a song, those songs have real lyrics and years of accumulated subjects, signifiers, and intent.”
Carlson worked closely with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to create the album artwork, regularly visiting his studio in Wisconsin to listen to the album as it was being made. The whole process took around three years.
Each symbol is a matter of many sketches … and a stream of consciousness kind of output
“I was able to spend time at the studio in person a number of times over the course of it all, in concentrated moments of development,” says Carlson, “but I have a studio in Brooklyn, so the long hours of making, drawing, designing, etc happened there.”
“We would listen to all the songs as they developed over the course of each visit. We would talk in detail about what all was going on within them – thoughts behind the lyrics, symbolic associations, technical details, etc.”
The final packaging is the result of a close collaboration between visual artist and musician. Carlson’s cryptic symbols invite analysis and interpretation – listeners are encouraged to study and decode each drawing and discover something new each time they pick the album up. The symbols were also used to promote the album on social media and to create large-scale murals in cities such as Berlin, Melbourne and Amsterdam. Carlson says the ying/yang symbol represents the idea of balance alluded to in the album’s title.
“If 22 is self/singular … and million is everyone … the title of the album in text is this act of balance,” he says.