Bon Iver’s beautiful, lovelorn For Emma, Forever Ago was a critics’ favourite of 2008, topping many year-end lists and bewitching the lucky few who heard it with its heartbreaking songs. It was the delicate raking-over of a relationship’s embers, the cathartic mumblings of a bereft man holed away in his Wisconsin wood cabin with a guitar and set of microphones, recovering from illness and the break-up of his band.
On its near-follow-up, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver in plainclothes) has reconvened with the Volcano Choir he and members of post-rockers Collections of Colonies of Bees formed in 2005. It’s an entirely natural combination, but a very different beast from Bon Iver. Where For Emma, Forever Ago cradled the listener, Unmap is plainly more challenging.
For starters, it’s light on words, favouring a hushed minimalism which isn’t so far from Vernon’s previous set but lacks that album’s immediacy. It’s not so easy to find a way in. Persevere, however, and rewards are plentiful, from the wind-scattered prettiness and choral interjections of Husks and Shells to And Gather’s campfire chimes, handclaps and cosy organ fills.
This is a quiet, withdrawn record, edging slowly into life with repeated, grooving sequences on Island, IS (available as a free download from the Jagjaguwar site) and the cats’ chorus of Cool Knowledge. Meanwhile, Dote’s ambient drone recalls Boards of Canada’s unsettling atmospherics and the treated vocal parps of Seeplymouth owe a debt to Laurie Anderson. These are not mainstream influences, but the parts add up to an oddly accessible whole.
It’s evident in the dreamy vocoder of the gorgeous Still, which feels like a comfort blanket after Mbira in the Morass’s creepy ghost-blues, and Youlogy’s gospel coda which happily tempers the mournful Thom Yorke-like whine that otherwise dominates the song. Difficult music offset by soulful touches.
While there’s still a whiff of the wintry woods about Unmap, it shows a more experimental side of Vernon than we’re familiar with, his occasional colleagues clearly giving him the space to express his less-charted oblique leanings. A welcome companion piece to For Emma, Forever Ago, this side-project is also a work to cherish in its own right. --Matthew Horton
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