Review Summary: who's agonised, and gnawed through it all?Self Record
is an album of sharp contradictions. The religiously euphoric "Ring Out" (that's 'ring out' both like a bell and like "the kitchen rags of God", in one of Vernon's cleverest ever moments) follows "Sides", a harrowing story of violence, abuse and a minister's anti-homosexuality prejudice. "Redemption 1" flits around in both tempo and tone, from happy to despondent in pursuit of its muse. Short instrumentals, near-ambient, allow bridges between monoliths like the touching acoustic "Nothing Better Than a Journey to You" or twelve-minute trumpet/guitar dance "We Will Never Die". Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is Justin's voice; the almost complete lack of his now-trademark falsetto leaves us with a soulful, throaty vocal that in many ways is the best of his career. It's not hard to feel the Springsteen influence on the run of soft acoustic songs beginning with "Drinking This Rain": admittedly, this section becomes greatly fatigued by its end, when we arrive at what sounds like a For Emma
c-side in "Above the Code".
The most interesting ideas come out in the least Bon Iver-like stretch of the album, starting when Vernon gives his vocal chords a well-earned sabbatical to instead highlight his more unorthodox instrumental choices. "How Many"" sounds like a Beatles chord progression laid over cut-up drums, with only a faint, deep vocal refrain reminding us that Vernon is even present, whilst "Right Down There In Your Tributary" recalls Thrice's Water
index with warbling guitars and synthesisers. Album highlight "The Orient and the Gatsby's Slew of Choices" shows Vernon flirting with electronics a full eleven years before he dived in the deep end with 22, A Million
. "Orient" comes out on top thanks to the comparative subtlety of its beeping and blooping, as well as perhaps the most beautiful vagueisms that Vernon has penned to date: Sell my car to the moving man. I'm the sea, and you're Japan
is the sound of an artist slowly stumbling towards the sound that would make him famous, and doing maybe his best and most honest work in that process. Could be that 'self record' is more than just a confusing way of saying self-titled – I always thought it was a pun on the physical act of recording oneself, or something even more cryptic – but in the end, I can't conceive of a more fitting title for this album than Justin Vernon