Bon Iver (or more precisely, Justin Vernon), the man behind last year’s sublime masterpiece For Emma Forever Ago, is back with a new project. But he’s not alone in a cabin in the middle of the Wisconsin wilderness this time, even if the album artwork’s winter scene suggests that might be the case. On this occasion, Vernon collaborates with experimental sound landscapers Collections Of Colonies Of Bees.
Experimental. That’s really the key word here, because no matter how much the world wants the next Bon Iver record, this really isn’t it. In many ways, Volcano Choir is Bon Iver’s alter-ego, and while Unmap isn’t quite the Mr Hyde to For Emma Forever Ago’s Dr Jekyll, there are moments where Unmap struggles to convince and tries the patience in a way that Justin Vernon’s last record never did.
Before the bad news, there is plenty of good. Thinking back to Bon Iver’s debut helps bridge the gap between the two records: the ghoulish, reverb-strewn vocal introduction of Lump Sum; the incongruous use of a vocoder during The Wolves (Act I and II); and the album’s one major flight of fancy, Team. Although For Emma Forever Ago was conceived in a wintry cabin, the album was subject to a little post-production and it is these elements of post-production that serve as useful preparation for Unmap’s harsher territory.
The uniformly pared-down arrangements maintain the Bon Iver mood. Snippets of acoustic sound accompany Vernon’s spooky falsetto harmonies during Husks and Shells. It’s an intimate sound that’s as chilling as it is comforting. Warming to Unmap involves moving closer to the dying fire, and while it never screams for attention, as an album it demands it all the same.
Sleeplymouth and Island, IS are, sequentially, the album’s most daring and inviting junctures. The former meanders like a three-part symphony, at times calling Sigur R�s to mind and, at others, the otherworldly production techniques of Brian Eno. The latter rewards the listener for braving the former’s seven minute landscape with the album’s most immediate hooks and electronic riffs. Again, Vernon’s double tracked mumbles and cold falsetto moans are key to the track’s success.
Dote bears the unmistakable sonic hue of a film soundtrack. But, true to the album’s artwork, this is a film set in wilderness, in isolation. It’s a little too creepy and reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project for comfort. The homemade, handicam sound continues with the next run of tracks. Both And Gather and Mbira In The Morass have the unhinged qualities of a One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest-style jamming session. While it isn’t an unpalatable sound, it’s a struggle to get close to it.
Still sees the return of the vocoder, and a return to some semblance of songcraft. But even though Vernon’s voice cascades in cycles of overlapping harmony, this is still a track that drifts rather than doing anything remotely profound. It is the sound of something missing. A film, images, narration. Something. Youlagy, which feels like a bastardised American national anthem, is an emotionally jarring climax.
Ultimately, Unmap is an album of disparate moods and indefinable emotions. It desperately needs some kind of visual accompaniment to, at least, add a cinematic legitimacy to the sound’s sporadic mood swings. Worthwhile? Probably. But the world waits for the proper return of Bon Iver.