What do you do after a breakthrough debut release and over a year of touring? If you’re Justin Vernon, you hang up your moniker – in this case, Bon Iver – and you reengage an earlier collaborative with some old friends from Wisconsin.
A couple of weeks before announcing an indefinite hiatus for Bon Iver, new music appeared on the shelves from Vernon in the form of Volcano Choir and its debut, Unmap. The move seems unprecedented, particularly with the run that Bon Iver has enjoyed, fueled by the 2008 debut For Emma, Forever Ago and constant touring that has taken him and his worthy band of musicians around the world. But you might say that Vernon, who wrote and recorded For Emma alone in a Wisconsin cabin, has earned it.
It is quickly clear that Volcano Choir is as much Vernon as Bon Iver. But here, his haunting falsetto is accompanied by a more experimental and full approach to instrumentation, and he is joined by a friendly cast of players who are known as Collections of Colonies of Bees. While several of the songs sting – the emotive opener “Husks and Shells” and the elecro-folk “Island, Is” prove particularly poignant – others are diluted by a drifting focus. Despite an intriguing, multi-faceted melody, “Sleepymouth” suffers under the weight of repetition, and the white noise of “Dote” and the repetition of “And Gather” seem overindulgent. The highlight of the album is a second take on “Still” the vocoder-rich track from Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP, rendered here with circling, epic instrumentation.
The insular, solemn warmth of Bon Iver was a worthy introduction to Justin Vernon’s prowess, and Volcano Choir gives depth to his musical personality. He deserves it. But his strengths lie in cohesion, and true to its name, Unmap lacks a defined course
Unmap is out now on JagJaguwar.