Not one to sit still for too long, Repave is the second full length release from Justin Vernon this year. This time sees a return to his preferred side project, collaborating with Collections of Colonies of Bees. Its predecessor, Unmap, allowed Vernon to blow off some experimental steam on the back of the success of For Emma, Forever Ago. More dense than what had rapidly become a must-have for indie darlings everywhere, Volcano Choir explored the limits of what Vernon and co. had at their disposal. At times it was rather difficult to listen to, though for the most part the subtle beauty of the tracks simmered through.
Repave is a wholly more accessible project. It doesn’t abandon the experimentation that gave the band its identity, nor does it ignore the rock edge that Vernon has added to his work as they have evolved, from the addition of a dozen extra musicians to the live Bon Iver shows to the straight-up Tom Petty influenced Americana of the Shouting Matches. Biting guitars give a solid foundation to rich choruses and familiar vocals, prominent on ‘Tiderays’, the album’s strong opener, and ‘Acetate’. It is on ‘Comrade’ and ‘Byegone’ [sic] that we really see the full majesty of this album. In particular for those yearning for Bon Iver #3, these tracks are esential. In fact, both would fit seamlessly alongside ‘Calgary’ and ‘Holocene’ on Bon Iver, serving as a wonderful extension of the groundwork undertaken on the album.
At times it delves back into what we have come to expect from Vernon, none more so than his crackling fragility on ‘Alaskans’, when he croons “lover won’t you talk to me about your lonely heart?”, though it does not allow itself to be cast entirely in this light. Lead single ‘Byegone’ is indicative of this. A slow beginning evolves into one of the most powerful moments on the album, a boisterous call to “set sail”, following on from assured declarations that “he’s a legend, I’m a legend. And we both go tripping through the door.”
‘Comrade’ is the undoubted highlight. Similar to ‘Byegone’ it checks in at familiar territory. Meticulous production sees stuttering loops, tentative and tight arrangements and a flutter of auto-tune as the track recalls the absolute best of the work Vernon has done to date. It also represents a transition, a move beyond these confines. It is a self-assured and wonderfully crafted work, knowing its own limitations and pushing against these. Vernon is in scintillating form, while the rest of the band provides the perfect foil to experiment with arrangements and vocal techniques. At one point, Volcano Choir existed purely as a footnote to articles about Bon Iver. With Repave the band has ensured that this will never again be the case. Quite simply, it is an unmissable album.