By Dom Sinacola | 4 November 2009
Like the prelapsarian prequel to Bon Iver’s cockle-tugging everything, Unmap extols the ecstasy inherent in Justin Vernon’s intractable falsetto by never letting it get lonely. What Volcano Choir recorded last Fall, based on songs written in 2005 before all this New Moon soundtrack business, is a pretty happy album, after all: Vernon’s gibbering mouth-diarrhea is cradled, cuddled, buoyed, lifted, and celebrated at every turn, like an infant surrounded by big-busom’d aunts. When he is left alone, un-pecked with opaque red lipstick and drunk on perfume, as in the bald and tired “Mbira in Morass,” Vernon again sounds left to exorcise his most solipsistic tremors by himself in some Wisconsin cabin. We’ve had enough talk of that Wisconsin cabin, OK—there’s more to this guy than moth-eaten mythologizing and Northern Exposure DVDs.
This is what Unmap accomplishes best: it’s not For Emma, Forever Ago (2007). It does bleed fitfully into that album, just as that album bleeds fitfully into this year’s Blood Bank EP, which ends with “Woods,” the vocoder vocal basis for, here, “Still.” Vernon’s made music before Bon Iver and before working with Collections of Colonies of Bees—the Wisconsin ambient/post-rock five-piece that comprises the majority of Volcano Choir—but not under popular aegis; he’s made music before, but that wasn’t pre-Bon Iver, just as it wasn’t Bon Iver, post-Bon Iver, or, like Volcano Choir, both pre- and post-Bon Iver. Though Vernon is only a physical one-sixth of this new material, it seems to exist to fetishize him as we know him now, his increasingly pliable, confident voice the nucleus to each track, and each track formless or cathartic or some poppy in-between by dint of his convolutions.
But Unmap, while happy as long as it’s got tumescence to look forward to, is still short and, for all its wonderful tactility and glowing tones, focus-less—that is, besides the grandeur of “Seeplymouth” and “Still” and the latent, traditional song structure buried beneath “Island, IS”’s mobius-twisting, onion-heavy skin. These songs, stippled by wandering set pieces like “And Gather,” which ramps from twinkling, sylvan bounce (Dreamworks-bulbous insects petal to petal) to torpedic din of wailing Vernons, or “Dote,” requisite drone-backed, spindly little thing, are admittedly ravishing as they do what they from the onset hint at doing, which is build and then combust. But at every step Vernon, balanced pleasantly between somnambulant and self-satisfied nonchalance, reigns in or lets loose the gathering pleats of cymbals, burnt-orange guitars, and quiche of Reichian permutations; he is this album’s Moses and this album is his Moses’s Red Sea. Check only “Seeplymouth” to follow how every syllable uttered by Vernon is cushioned or given room by the—hee—doting instrumentals, how the climax is only reached when Vernon opens his mouth wider and moans coitally into the maw revealed as the shuffling drums step out for a smoke.
So Unmap is a gorgeous album as often as it’s a maundering, seemingly sketchy indulgence worshipping the un-lyrics Vernon creakily lays, exhausted and content in that exhaustion, on tape, in nature, in the snow, in a poof-ball hat and itchy beard. What coronas can wreathe him? What auras can glow to accentuate his crannies? Good questions, Volcano Choir; I’ve asked the same steeped in the barest, most frightening stretches of For Emma, but that was only because there Vernon touched on some stark melancholy, some morbid loneliness, and was breathlessly engaging for that—I’m 26 and that album made me cry for my mom, or for her absence. Here, Vernon’s surrounded by friends, his solitude no longer suppurating; in turn, he no longer sounds dire, his every note is no longer a crucial, pained grasp for something other than dark, blank silence. Here we’re given a respite from Bon Iver’s heavy crises while still loving on Bon Iver; here, Volcano Choir is inevitably weightless—a pretty happy band with a pretty happy album.