Okay, Justin Vernon, we get it: you don’t want to be put into a box. Vernon released music under many monikers over the years until striking gold with Bon Iver, releasing the aching For Emma, Forever Ago and eventually collecting the Best Aternative Album and Best New Artist awards at the Grammys (albeit under protest) for 2011’s beautiful Bon Iver. Shortly after, Vernon announced that he was mothballing the project for an indefinite period, saying “I really feel the need to walk away from it while I still care about it. And then if I come back to it – if at all – I’ll feel better about it and be renewed or something to do that.”
Since then, Vernon has spread his music-making efforts far and wide. Just this year, he collaborated with pal Kanye West for several tracks on the excellent Yeezus, and released Grownass Man, a bluesy garage-rock album, with three-piece bar band The Shouting Matches. These projects seemed a far cry from the quiet grandeur of Bon Iver; while it was nice to see Vernon moving out of his comfort zone, one has to wonder if Vernon’s reluctance to return to the project that made him well-known is an overt “fuck you” to the industry that thrust him into a spotlight when all he wanted to do was make music with his friends.
And that’s precisely where Volcano Choir comes in. In 2009, Vernon teamed up with members of post-rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees to release Unmap, a moody, scattershot debut that combined spacey math-rock, electronica, and bluegrass. While it was often interesting, Unmap never combined its diverse elements into a cohesive record. Behind the scenes, it’s not hard to see why – the band pieced the record together across various sessions and studios, rather than coming together to write and record. Volcano Choir’s second offering, Repave, is more put-together, and as a result, much more satisfying. In fact, it’s so good, that it places Volcano Choir in a position to match or even overshadow Bon Iver.
Vernon mainly contributed lyrics/vocal melodies to Repave – bandmates Jon Mueller, Chris Rosenau, Matthew Skemp, Daniel Spack, and Thomas Wincek wrote the music and submitted it to Vernon for his contributions. Even so, there’s a fair amount of Bon Iver’s DNA in the album’s blood. In fact, many of the tracks would feel right at home mixed in with Vernon’s back catalog. The rattling Civil War drums of album opener “Tiderays” make it a nice companion to Bon Iver‘s “Perth,” while the bleating synth loops on “Comrade” sound like a sequel to “Calgary.” This is post-rock with pop sensibilities – songs don’t start or stop as much as they wind up and unspool, but every cut simmers before boiling over into a central hook. The album cover, which features a craggy, embroiled ocean, might be a cliché; but hey, I can’t think of a more apt depiction of the flow of the album; ping-ponging guitar noodles are buoyed by hulking bass lines, building into towering, crashing melodies before ebbing away in time for the next wave of sound to rise in the distance. All the majesty might come across as self-indulgent if the delivery wasn’t so damn earnest.
The album’s centerpiece, the blistering “Byegone,” is the perfect realization of the collision of styles. Growling, overdriven bass sets the tone before the guitar line explodes triumphantly skyward. Vernon’s voice work is particularly impressive; equal parts silken baritone and yelping falsetto, he expands and refines the vocal styles he’s been straddling since For Emma, Forever Ago. Vernon’s trademark nonsensical lyrics make a return here, as well; while he cited the confusion of love and sex as a driving inspiration for the album’s lyrical content, it’s hard to take Vernon seriously when he sings:
Are we going on a coat ride?
Well, we’re off and definitely stumbling
Tossin’ off your compliments, wow
Sexing all your Parliaments
He’s right, it’s certainly, um, erotic…but it’s hard to really pinpoint in what way when the lyrics are glorified nonsense. How does one sex a Parliament, let alone several? But it’s not all clever yet unsubstantial wordplay. According to Vernon, the other main influence on his lyrical content was the poetry of Charles Bukowski; themes of isolation, inadequacy, and insignificance are more easy to suss out, such as in the hollering gang-style vocals of “Acetate.”
There are promises I’ll make
There are promises that I’ll take away
But I won’t beg for you on acetate
I won’t crawl on you to validate
Then there’s “Alaskans,” a delicate, somber affair capped with a sample of Bukowski himself, reading “The Shower.” It’s a heartbreaking moment, as Bukowski drunkenly breaks down crying.
Vernon felt so strongly about including the excerpt on the album that the band went to Bukowski’s widow to procure the proper permission. The passion Vernon and his bandmates have for this project is palpable in the music, so much so that Repave borders on sounding like a real band recorded it instead of some sort of super-group or side project; Volcano Choir has come into its own. Frankly, it’s for the best; as long as he’s making quality music like this, I couldn’t care less if another Bon Iver album never happens. And I’m not so sure that Justin Vernon cares, either. He just wants to make music with his friends.
Repave is currently available in stores, digitally and at volcanochoir.com.