Review Summary: Justin Vernon channels his inner Seth McFarlane, and creates a gorgeous album in the process.
In 2011, comedian Patrice Oneal closed out Charlie Sheen's roast with a hilarious critique of Seth McFarlane. "It's almost like he's jealous of his own creation. He's trying to prove that he's better than the cartoon, but he's not better than the cartoon!" The audience laughed and applauded, acknowledging McFarlane's attempts to show that his talent extends beyond his hit series Family Guy. He's created other animated series like American Dad and The Cleveland Show. He's even ventured into the silver screen with Ted and A Million Ways to Die in the West. Still, no matter how much acclaim he receives, his best and most beloved work lies in a series with a talking dog and an evil baby.
It's been 8 years since For Emma, Forever Ago was released. Filled, with sadness, texture and beauty, it's an album that cannot be rivaled in its genre. It brought Justin Vernon into the forefront of the indie folk world, and put an enormous amount of pressure on his shoulders. So, instead of trying to recreate a masterpiece, he smartly chose to abandon the raw, acoustic atmosphere of For Emma for his next release. With higher production qualities and expanded instrumentation, Bon Iver's self titled album proved to be a success. However, it could never come close to having the impact that the iconic first release had.
Volcano Choir was created shortly after For Emma was released. Vernon collaborated with Collections of Colonies of Bees to create an post-rock leaning indie band, where he could be free to experiment and expand his range of sounds. It was clear that Vernon wanted, like Seth McFarlane, to break himself free from his own masterpiece. Their first album Unmap did not receive as much acclaim as either of Bon Iver's albums, but it did capture people's attention. The folk world was excited to see their poster child branching out into new territory.
And then came Repave. A concoction of light rock, folk, and landscape, this collection of songs shows Vernon at the top of his game once again. The album begins with Tiderays, a song that sets in progress the emotion of the entire album. To start, an organ softly plays a simple chord progression, and then bottoms out, giving the stage to some slow, beautiful guitar picking. Justin Vernon's signature falsetto vocals come in as the tempo is established. Like a rubber band, the song grows in intensity and then retracts itself.
In contrast, the next track Acetate shows the band's adeptness at sustaining a rhythm without falling into the trap of becoming repetitive. A drum beat is established early in the song and continues until a small interlude halfway through. Interludes like this are sprinkled throughout the album, and are mainly built around Justin Vernon's dissonant "ohs" and ethereal piano chords.
Throughout the songs songs that follow, Volcano Choir shows their ability to build song structures that compliment and feed off each other. Bygone and Comrade are both tracks that are structured to create a roller coaster effect with soft, meek lows leading to majestic highs.
Two of the most interesting tracks are the last two, Keel and Almanac. In Keel, Vernon experiments in a genre he's not yet explored, with minor 6th and 7th chords usually seen in phsychedelic rock. Finally, he uses the benefit of the doubt he's earned to create some strange techno feels in the album closer, Almanac. This is the perfect way to end the album; it shows that Vernon will never settle for complacency, and raises the anticipation for Volcano Choir's next release.
So has Justin Vernon created an album that surpasses his masterpiece" No, he hasn't. Both albums are works of art, but in different ways. For Emma succeeded because of its simple beauty. In contrast, Repave succeeds because of its devious complexity. Each song on Repave might sound simple the first listen, but an in depth look shows complex song structures and some of Vernon's most textured production yet. Just like Seth McFarlane, he has shown that his talent exceeds beyond what he is most known for. But the harder he tries to detach himself from it, the more it defines him.