Justin Vernon is a busy man. Between dissing the Grammys, apologizing for dissing the Grammys, accepting Grammys, holing up with Kanye West in French hotel rooms, and releasing albums with The Shouting Matches and now Volcano Choir, he’s barely had time to discuss how tired he is of Bon Iver. Contrary to panic-induced hypotheticals, while Vernon’s main gig is no longer his main gig, it isn’t exactly defunct either. In the meantime, we have the reasonably comparable Repave to tide us over until Bon Iver awakens from hibernation.
The paradox of Justin Vernon is that he seems to be both uncommonly ambitious and averse to the spotlight. Bon Iver got too big, too fast, so he stepped away to turn his attention to other projects. Up next in his veritable stockpile of collaborations is Volcano Choir, his band with members of the post-rock group Collections of Colonies of Bees, who dropped their cerebral, experimental debut Unmap way back in 2009. Their follow-up is Repave, which has much loftier objectives but retains an eccentric edge, just enough to distinguish itself. Vernon has retreated to a less recognizable moniker, but he’s still interested in massive power ballads. It’s the kind of music that inspires splendid imagery, each song beginning as a meek guitar line or organ sound that crests to something fifty times its original size.
The geneology of the Repave can be muddy, but it mostly plays like the jumbo-size lovechild of Unmap and Bon Iver’s 2011 self-titled album. Things kick off with “Tiderays,” which follows a pattern similar to “Perth,” starting with silence, punching in with a capacious acoustic riff from Chris Roseneau that swells to a sky-high chorus with the help of a full backing band. A few tracks excepting, this is the kind of album you’d expect to take on a whole new power live. It’s a sort of Broken Social Scene mentality: the more players the better.
On “Acetate” and “Byegone” Vernon moves his voice from his head to his chest, taking on a Leonard Cohen-type rumble to spellbinding effect. The choruses are passionate and hooky, slowly restructuring themselves into massive towers that then collapse in on themselves. The monstrous screams of “set sail!” on “Byegone” are just begging for a venue of tens of thousands.
Plunked in the middle of those two is the gorgeous “Comrade,” in many ways the missing link between For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, with shimmering synths and Vernon sporting his brightest falsetto. “Make sure you stay oblivious,” he remarks. You got it, Justin. As has been the case in the past, Vernon is being deliberately obtuse with his words, which can make for slightly frustrating listening, especially when his music is so lucid. “Almanac” starts out with what appears to be three different time signatures before being bolted into place by skittering drums, and then Vernon delivers his most meaningful lyric of the whole album “I’ll be alive when all of this is over.” Fittingly enough, Volcano Choir appears to have become a sanctuary of sorts for Vernon, a metaphorical cabin in the woods.
The trio of “Alaskans,” “Dancepack” and “Keel” are lower-key, with less volume and more emphasis on introspection. Given that Repave only contains eight tracks, these three songs give balance to the album rather than upending it. Taken as a start-to-finish listening experience, there’s a sort of all-purpose affability to Repave that makes even the more unintelligible moments sound like high-concept pop music. The limits of Vernon’s imagination and drive have yet to be truly tested, and based on the size of the sounds that he’s summoning here, the ceiling isn’t even in his sights yet.