This wasn’t supposed to happen. Volcano Choir wasn’t supposed to become a real band who make great albums. By this point, I’d come to understand Justin Vernon as the type of great artist who only gets around to making great art after he’s already exhausted every form of procrastination he can find. Four years separated For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and it felt like longer, since Vernon never went away. When he’s not busy with his main band, he stays out there, indulging musical whim after musical whim and cluttering up his discography. Vernon did the blooz-band record, the record with the Minneapolis prom-soul collective, the unlikely Kanye hooks, the production gigs, the guest appearances, the reunions with old bandmates, the one-offs, the constant neverending tours. And a lot of that stuff is good. The Gayngs album is great, he always sounds amazing on Kanye tracks, and I once saw him sing an absolutely shattering rendition of Donny Hathaway’s “You’ve Got A Friend” with his reunited old band DeYarmond Edison. But there’d been an understanding that none of this stuff would add up to the general glacial beauty that he’d conjure whenever he got it together to make a new Bon Iver album — that it would take time and mental energy for him to conjure this glacial beauty in the first place. The first Volcano Choir album, 2009’s Unmap, seemed like a side project, much like all the other side projects: One truly gorgeous song in “Islands, IS” and then a whole lot of formless pretty-enough ambiance. But now we get Repave. And Repave is something else.
If Vernon had gone ahead and called Repave a Bon Iver album, and preceded it with a few months of lead-up hype, I don’t think anyone would’ve complained. Bon Iver’s actual membership shifts enough anyway, and the sound is closer to the widescreen drift of Bon Iver, Bon Iver than that album was to For Emma, Forever Ago. More to the point, Repave is not a small album, the way Unmap was. It’s an album with big goals and a big sound, and it invokes big feelings. This is canyon-spanning music, soaring-eagle music, music for deserts and mountain ranges and skyscraper rooftops. If you were to wake up one morning with the ability to fly, it’s the music you might want to have playing on your earbuds when you watch the world disappear beneath your feet for the first time, when you first feel cloud-vapor in your lungs. I want to make a triumphant underdog sports-movie just so I can use “Byegone” to soundtrack the climactic inspirational locker-room speech. It’s that kind of album.
I know basically nothing about Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, the Wisconsin post-rock band whose members make up the non-Vernon parts of Volcano Choir. I’d never heard of them before Unmap. And yet Vernon has spoken of them as his teachers, as the band who opened up an entire world of music to him. We all have bands like that, local heroes whose names we speak in hushed tones even though people two towns over have never heard of them, whose genius seemed obvious to us even if nobody else ever noticed it. So maybe Unmap was Vernon using these guys, his teachers, to explore the outer edges of his own ideas, or maybe they were pushing him further out into the ether. But on Repave, Vernon and COCOB somehow ground each other without tying each other down. Rather than experimental minimalist post-rock with really good singing — which is what Unmap was — Repave sounds like what might happen if folk and R&B and granola-indie and U2 met in an underground lab somewhere, agreed to liberate themselves of the tyranny of pop-song formalism, and then decided to team up and take over the world.
Lyrically, it’s pretty silly roaming-free poetics. Vernon is newly single, and so there’s a lot of talk about roaming the earth unencumbered. I spent a little while scrutinizing the lyric sheet, trying to make some sense of it all, until I got to the part on “Alaskans” where he says he wants to re-up on that real love, and then I just stopped trying. “Alaskans” also samples Charles Bukowski reading a poem in the documentary Born Into This, which is a total college-sophomore move and also the exact same move that DOOM made on his album Born This Way. But what matters isn’t the words — Vernon’s or Bukowski’s — it’s the sound. In DOOM’s hands, that Bukowski sample was apocalyptic, but on Repave, we hear the slippery drunk warmth in the crackle of that recording. And similarly, the lyrics on Repave aren’t the show. The important thing is that this thing has goosebump moment after goosebump moment; the all-out beauty never stops. Consider, if you will, the opening of “Bygone,” the moment where the slow-surging piano thrums and guitar-twinkles drop away and an absolutely triumphant riff, one that splits the difference between the Edge and Explosions In the Sky, wanders through. The dynamics of that moment are just astonishing, and you might not even notice it at first, since it comes after four songs of moments just like that.
It wasn’t easy to pick an album this week. My heart was with Kathleen Hanna’s new band the Julie Ruin, whose debut Run Fast marks the long-awaited return of one of our famous punk-rock voices. It’s got some serious anthems, but it’s not exactly consistent throughout. Neko Case, meanwhile, just make an album where she did almost every beautiful thing with her voice that we could possibly ever ask her to do, but some of the songs just weren’t quite there. There were a bunch of other great albums, too (and Nine Inch Nails’ grandly squiggly Hesitation Marks, which I would’ve probably picked if I hadn’t already written about it). Volcano Choir had serious competition. But those utterly dazzling, weirdly moving moments demand recognition. Repave is among the most exquisitely comforting albums I’ve heard in recent memory. I almost feel like I didn’t pick it out of the field of available albums this week. It simply demanded to be chosen.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Nine Inch Nails’ beautifully orchestrated comeback Hesitation Marks.
• Pixies’ out-of-nowhere short-form return EP-1.
• Neko Case’s fierce-but-comforting The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
• The Julie Ruin’s fun, ferocious, hook-happy debut Run Fast.
• Holograms’ intense, electric, generally badass Scandinavian punker Forever.
• Okkervil River’s conceptual small-town exploration The Silver Gymnasium.
• Chelsea Wolfe’s spare, dark Pain Is Beauty.
• King Khan And The Shrines’ psychedelic soul-rocker Idle No More.
• Califone’s rootsy-but-rootless Stitches.
• Foxygen member Jonathan Rado’s solo debut Law And Order.
• Grooms’ expansive post-rocker Infinity Caller.
• Emily Reo’s DIY dream-pop debut Olive Juice.
• Vattnet Viskar’s vast, blackened metal album Sky Swallower.
• Celestial Shore’s hazy, lurching 10x.
• Former Cryptacize member Nedelle Torrisi’s self-titled solo debut.
• The Girls Against Boys reunion EP The Ghost List.
• Lonnie Holley’s outsider-spiritual LP Keeping A Record Of It.