Justin Vernon had a pretty ridiculously awesome 2011. It was the year he dropped his self-titled second LP as Bon Iver, receiving widespread critical acclaim, a Grammy, and securing his place in the indie rock spotlight for as long as he wanted. Among plenty of others, his work as Bon Iver garnered the attention of Kanye West, and the same year, he appeared a second of West’s records for the collaboration with Jay Z Watch The Throne. The guy could do no wrong. So it was a bit surprising after relentless touring throughout 2012 that Vernon announced that his work as Bon Iver was going to be put on hold indefinitely so that he could return to his work with Volcano Choir (his ongoing collaboration with members of Collections of Colonies of Bees). While Volcano Choir’s first LP Unmap was altogether listenable, the popular response on many fronts was a resounding, “What?!”. But after spending some time with Repave, Volcano Choir’s experimental pop sophomore effort, you’ll thank Vernon for keeping us guessing. Repave is not a Bon Iver record, and Vernon and his mates don’t want it to be one. Rather, it’s a far more accessible, far more charming alternate vision of one of our generation’s greatest songwriters. Repave blazes the road ahead for Volcano Choir to keep us falling in love with their brilliantly epic sound and scope.
On their 2009 debut Unmap, Volcano Choir tend towards obscurity. The grandiose build of “Seeplymouth” is hidden well under a disorienting, spiraling melodic structure. The divine genius of “Still” (a brilliant second look at Vernon’s now infamous “Woods”) faces a similar debacle. If you have the patience and the eye for it, Unmap is a deeply rewarding experience, but it takes a little effort to discover it. With Repave, Vernon and the gang show their cards a bit sooner. The album is chalk full of spine-chilling builds and explosive hooks that will bring you to your knees if you aren’t careful. Seriously, Repave is an emotional undertaking. As the sleigh bells crash in on “Byegone” and the band all scream together “Set Sail!”, you can’t not feel doors open in front of you and a shining path to take on appear on the horizon. Vernon’s colors are on full display here, in all their shapes and sizes. “Acetate” shows off a melancholy majesty with equal parts pain and resolve. “Comrade” tells a story of complicated relationship an emotionally dynamic and eclectic soundtrack. “Dancepack” looks for a place to exist and thrive to a driving, anthemic hook. “You got one kind of trouble. It’s the one that’s on your back” Vernon cries out. Where his work as Bon Iver feels like diary of ongoing introspection, with Volcano Choir, Vernon gives more than he takes. The writing is a different ball game, and it’s fun to see a completely different side of him.
The apex of the album comes just after its midpoint. “Alaskans” strips all of Volcano Choir’s epic layers back to reveal a fragile, naked group of honest friends. The quiet interactions between piano, guitar, and the occasional, poignant drum build create the most immersive cut of the record. Here, more than anywhere else, Repave feels like a new chapter for Vernon and his band. You can almost see them together, huddled in a cabin with a fire burning, passing around beers and talking heart to heart. It’s a beautiful moment and a beautiful motif going forward on the album and back. Repave is a road forward, and you should take it.
Repave is out now on Jagjaguwar. Volcano Choir will play the Neptune Theater on January 25 of next year. Tickets are available here.