“This is it, no turning back,” the Christmas waif Kevin McCallister insists in Home Alone 2, immediately before he hurls a brick through a pristine store front window. Justin Vernon found himself at a similar stopping point post Blood Bank EP. Behind him was the gentle folk For Emma Forever Ago delivered, an album as beholden to artist mythology as it was to a tracklist. He’d slowly started to slip the albatross with Unmap, the first Volcano Choir LP released in 2009. But, for all its successes Unmap smacked of an artist attempting to outpace the pressure catching up to him. Sophomore Bon Iver release Bon Iver was the brick through the window, smashing artist expectations into a million pieces.
For its tenderness, Bon Iver was an album of supreme confidence. Vernon’s haunting voice towed the line between frailness and certainty in a way few can. Follow-up Volcano Choir release Repave continues to tiptoe for an eternal 38 minutes. Opener “Tiderays” corps drumming and steady build collapsing into a rousing chorus recalls Bon Iver’s “Perth”. Guitar strumming drips gently like morning dew on the grass, but soon enough it swells until busting lose from the dam. Vernon is already wading in the stormy waters of romance, “bracing for the tiderays”
Bon Iver was a record longing to escape the slow freeze of “the moment”, Repave finds Justin Vernon doggedly trying to preserve it. “Comrade” intertwines frayed guitar figures and straying piano into a tapestry depicting Vernon’s last ditch efforts. He’s floundering, hooked on a long line of promises and tugging the entire time. An urge to “give it another fortnight” is a dying gasp. Failed relationships rarely collapse, more often they steadily decay. A bare falsetto floats through the tall pines on “Keel”. Here again the guitars flit, never able to rally around the task they’ve been handed. Their tremulousness mirrors the “cold slow” uncertainty plaguing Vernon as he plans for preservation. “Just stay here, just stay here loving me,” he mutely begs. When the time comes to make his pitch, he’s in pieces. Conveying your love rarely goes according to plan. All the rehearsals can’t hide a beating heart, still a shaking hand, or cool the heat of the moment.
While parsing Justin Vernon’s lyrics is an effort more likely to lead to insanity than insight, there are prevalent themes encased in Repave’s amber. Sex is a prominent part of the equation. The skulking guitars and dawdling pianos of “Byegone” carry Vernon down the mountain to the “north end of monogamy”. Reupping on real love, “Alaskans” carefully fingerpicks guitar for a winsome folk-tune you could picture Fleet Foxes performing. Charles Bukowski’s voice crackles: “when you take it away, do it slowly and easily, make it as if I were dying in my sleep instead of in my life, amen.” “The Shower”s voracious sexual appetite masks a naked fragility. Carnality can only be staved off by connection.
Trading the physical for the mental isn’t the only aspect of sex Repave documents. The confusion or post-coital clarity it affords is equally important. Vernon masks his anxiousness on the steadily stomping “Dancepack” with supremely self-confident vocal acrobatics. He steadfastly resolves “I’m already never gonna fail you”. Soon resolve decomposes into the desperate yelp “take note, there’s still a hole in your heart”. “Acetate” similarly chest puffs via the Spartan half-threat “I won’t beg for you on acetate”. Past disappointments fuel Vernon’s fiery refusal to crawl. However, several noncommittal “mays” throttle an exasperated “will”. We’re hearing a snarl mask a silent cry.
Pictorial intimacy matters as much as the physical form on Repave. Bon Iver‘s roaring waves and towering mountains hid the backwoods roads “3rd and lake”. Closer “Almanac” begins as a tightly coiled remembrance of Saturdays “toasted, roasting in your room”, before unhinging into sizzling memories unencumbered by time. The imperious synthesizer scoops you up and drops you onto a “slow lofty river”, guitars shedding their mortal coils and beginning ascent. Every bend and turn brims with joy, the kind that often accompanies “going for a homerun”, in whatever uniform the metaphor might dawn. Vernon alludes to a time when “all of us are sober”, an epoch yet to arrive based on the “dancing on your footsteps” he describes. “When all of this is over” is mentioned, though it’s as far off as the birds flying overhead on the album’s cover.
“Anthemic” has been a word bandied around quite a bit upon this album’s release with suggestions it should already be soundtracking the inspirational locker room speech in sports films. I agree it’s anthemic, but an anthem’s loud pounding notes inevitably die down and are replaced by silence. Those inspirational speeches are forgotten once the roar of the crowd drowns you out. Physical, mental, spiritual, and personal connections carry us to the mountaintops, but as Volcano Choir reminds us on Repave’s final line, we’re always “coming down to the ground.”