Justin Vernon has been aching to leave his father's hunting cabin in the North Woods behind ever since he unexpectedly emerged from it with a heroically heartfelt (and classic) batch of songs titled For Emma, Forever Ago
some 8 years ago. No matter how hard he's tried to shake that album's mythical backstory, this image of the lonesome, wounded folkie (once even parodied in an SNL skit by Justin Timberlake
) has followed Vernon and his Bon Iver
project around ever since. While his lush and orchestrated self-titled follow up in 2011 certainly proved he could work on a more grandiose scale, most of the songs were created with Vernon's original rustic blueprint in mind...save that record's rather shocking, Bruce Hornsby-inspired closer, "Beth/Rest". And so for 8 years, most likely to his chagrin, Vernon has remained one of the bearded faces of the very popular, modern folk scene.
Yesterday Vernon released the third song from his inquisitively title new album, 22, A Million
(due Sept. 30th). For those keeping score at home, that's 30% of the entire record, making it an appropriate time to prematurely declare that this is the record where Vernon finally douses that cabin in gasoline, lights a match, and whistles a happy tune ("Famous"?) while skipping away from the effigy. Also, can you imagine Justin Vernon skipping? There's an image for you.
After playing his forthcoming album in full at his hometown Eaux Claires Festival (which he created along with The National's Aaron Dessner) earlier this month, Vernon announced a release date and unleashed the album's first two tracks. "22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]" and "10 d E A T h b R E a s T (Extended Version)" preview a more robust and experimental sound that favors compelling studio-craft over the raw emotion of Emma and the orchestrated grace of Bon Iver.
On "22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]", the clarity of the mix crumbles as the song cycles through...like discovering some ancient relic only to have it waste away to dust the moment you pick it up. Of course Vernon's all too familiar falsetto is there, but other vocal flourishes spin like a warped record in the background. Little sonic glitches trick the ear and Vernon's own vocal melodies get overpowered by the dilapidated electronic world in which they exist. Similar types of production ear-candy power "10 d E A T h b R E a s T (Extended Version)"; a track that tumbles around on a crunchy bed of severely distorted drum patterns.
While a compelling and somewhat surprising shift in direction, I suppose it's to be expected...especially considering Vernon's spent the last half decade hanging and collaborating with the likes of Kanye and James Blake. But I do wonder if the new artistic territory Vernon's entered (future-folk?) lives on the edge of what a lot of long-time fans are willing to tolerate? For Emma
really does feel like forever ago. Six to twelve months from now it might not matter...some of the best records are the ones that take a while to reveal themselves. But I am curious where this is all heading.
Three songs down, seven to go...guess we'll find out soon enough.