Review Summary: Unmap proves that Justin Vernon really is more than For Emma, but will undoubtedly cause many a wistful sigh as listeners yearn for the bearded, flannel-wearing recluse they know and love.
It’s probably a little too early to tell, but damn, it sure seems like Justin Vernon does not want to be pigeon-holed, doesn’t it? At the surface, his gorgeous debut For Emma, Forever Ago
was the prettiest folk record of 2008 and
2007, but it was the repeated listens that revealed the record’s deep layers and soulful harmonies, uncovering just how far Vernon strayed from the folk template. Then came the totally a capella, totally auto-tuned track “Woods” off the Blood Bank
EP, a song that showed the remarkably powerful potential of pitch-correction software. From a man whose debut album was basically a critic’s wet dream (he recorded his heartbreak in a log cabin
k’s sake), “Woods” was equal parts refreshing and controversial. It’s not impossible to imagine Bon Iver loving the shit
storm that ensued, as reviewers were either floored or utterly bewildered by the track. The fact that Vernon’s newest project, Volcano Choir, samples “Woods” on its cornerstone song “Still” only enforces the idea that Justin Vernon wants to be known as so much more than the bearded, flannel-wearing recluse that brought you For Emma, Forever Ago
, the act’s first LP, proves that Vernon is
more than that man, but will undoubtedly cause many a wistful sigh as listeners yearn for the bearded, flannel-wearing recluse they know and love.
Volcano Choir is the combination of Vernon and the electronic/post rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees, but it’s clear which half of the collaboration is being showcased here. The band, aware that most of the universe isn’t saying “Hey, Collections of Colonies of Bees came out with a new record and got some singer,” plays new aesthetic for Justin Vernon, and the result is, well, Justin Vernon in a new aesthetic. The band makes little effort to disassociate itself from Bon Iver, for on top of sampling Bon Iver songs, Volcano Choir starts off firmly in the comfort zone of For Emma
fans. Opening track “Husks and Shells” remembers “Wolves” with sloppy acoustic guitar loops and massive choral harmonies, and later on there’s a “Team”-esque interlude featuring an outright sexy
Vernon humming a bass line. The obvious nod to Vernon as the group’s drawing point isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Volcano Choir’s best work comes when Vernon’s voice takes the focus away from the act’s unfortunate tendency to noodle aimlessly. For example, “Seeplymouth” is a wondrously dreamy tune, whose base in minimalism allows Vernon to croon tunefully en route to a hypnotic climax. If anyone else was singing, the track would hardly be as mesmerizing, a fact the group is well aware of not just on “Seeplymouth,” but on the entire record.
Collections of Colonies of Bees know that in Justin Vernon, they have star power, and they utilize him to exercise their own strengths on a larger scale than they ever would have previously. This leads to both good and bad ends on Unmap
. On the one hand, the group crafts a track like “Island, IS,” a spellbinding gem that is one of the rare times where Vernon sounds in perfect sync with the band supporting him. On the other, it convinces the band that putting “Mbira in the Morass” (a track whose plunking pianos and surprisingly tuneless vocals make it easily the worst thing Vernon’s ever recorded) on the record is a good idea. The middle third of the album is a key suite where Vernon takes a backseat to Bees’ experimental side, but instead of using the section to highlight the band’s prowess, Bees curiously deliver four quick inconsequential interludes, which do wonders for the pace of Unmap
, but little for the quality. It plays a large role in defining the record as a whole: it’s a swift, uneven listen that leaves both Justin Vernon and Collections of Colonies of Bees plenty of room to grow.
“Still” and “Youlogy” close the record with a reminder of just how cool the Volcano Choir project could have been. “Still,” a revamp of the aforementioned “Woods,” shows the song’s unexpectedly natural lean to post rock. “Still" orchestrates the entirety of “Woods” with deft skill, pushing and pounding methodically forward towards a climax that matches “Woods’” inherent angst. It’s the album’s standout moment, mixing both what Bon Iver and Collection of Colonies of Bees do best. It’s only fitting, then, that the following track is called “Youlogy,” a song that finishes Unmap
with a brief, melancholy hymn. "Still" and "Youlogy" combine to make a beautifully warm conclusion, which is fitting, as the record clings to the warmth in Vernon’s voice even when it meanders bleakly.
is exactly what it had to be for Justin Vernon. It’s a quality album, and the record’s class shows that he really is more than just For Emma, Forever Ago
. Still, the inconsistency of Unmap
is a reminder of where his strengths truly lie, and that’s what Unmap
will most likely be remembered for: despite being a solid, sometimes gorgeous album of songs from a very well-matched collaboration of artists, Unmap
’s ultimate effect will be whetting appetites everywhere for the next Bon Iver record (which, by the way, will rule).