Bon Iver is one of the great indie success stories of the last few years. Everyone knows the tale by now: Justin Vernon experiences a loss, of sorts; retreats to a cabin deep in the woods of Wisconsin; records For Emma, Forever Ago while surrounded by that isolation; the album becomes a sleeper hit, its raw emotion resonating with listeners across the globe. Somewhere in that progression, Sean Carey dips into the story. A huge fan of Bon Iver’s record, Carey listened to it obsessively on MySpace, learning the instrumentation and vocals so well that, when he approached Vernon to ask about joining the touring band, the new folk hero couldn’t refuse him. Now, Carey—going by S. Carey, professionally—is releasing his own solo debut, All We Grow.
It’s easy to compare All We Grow to Carey’s patron’s work on For Emma, Forever Ago. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a listener that won’t do so, reflexively. The foundational points of comparison show up on most every track—breathy vocals, simple and melodic acoustic guitar work, layers of vocal harmonies. Carey, a classically trained percussionist and jazz aficionado, also claims influence from Talk Talk and Steve Reich, artists one probably wouldn’t compare to Bon Iver after the first few spins of For Emma. The question, then: Is All We Grow good enough—and, perhaps more importantly, distinctive enough—to prompt Carey to step outside of Vernon’s shadow?
The short answer is, plainly, no. The longer answer is, no, but why insist on the comparison, at all? Carey’s not trying to write Bon Iver songs. He writes from a common palate shared with Vernon, sure, but he seems to concern himself more with atmosphere, more with immersion in sound than with immediate, emotive pop songcraft. Take “We Fell” as a case in point. Carey builds the song around a simple, staccato piano chord progression, ala Bon Iver’s “Babys”. His double-tracked, layered vocals reach into falsetto, Vernon’s trademark territory, as Carey sings For Emma-esque impressionistic lyrics about two lovers falling into the dreamworld only the two of them share. For the song’s first half, it might as well be an Emma b-side.
However, Carey breathes life into the composition as it builds into a satisfying coda, an arpeggiating piano melody blending with classical instrumentation—is that an oboe? an echo of timpani?—to beautiful, subtly soaring effect. That aural experience of uplift, that’s the difference between Carey’s emotional operating base and Vernon’s: where Bon Iver’s record showed its author wrestling with the loss of a relationship and trying to find himself in the process, Carey’s writing on All We Grow seems to be an extended love letter to the person Carey has in mind when singing, “If I could run/my fingers through your hair/I would keep my mornings clear” All We Grow has its share of yearning, make no mistake, but there’s no fear of loss here—just a desire to be close to one’s lover and the confidence that he or she wants that intimacy, as well (“If you doubt that I’ll be there”, Carey sings on “In the Dirt”, “don’t despair/don’t you dare”.).
Contentment can be a tricky emotion to transform into compelling art. For Emma, Forever Ago is almost painfully candid in its grief, at points, but it’s all the more compelling for that openness. While “We Fell” and “In the Dirt” manage to wrest some interesting build-and-release out of their longer track lengths, much of All We Grow relies too heavily on repetition (is that the Reich influence?), both instrumentally and vocally. In other words, its songs too often seem content to remain close to their initial moments once they make it out of the gate. “Mothers” and “Action”, which seem like parts one and two of the same song, fight against that sense of static, introducing some welcome percussion on an album inexplicably lacking in it, considering its songwriter’s roots. Unfortunately, the album’s second half fails to capitalize on the hints at dynamism in those earlier moments. “In the Stream” wants to swell out of its confines, but peters out before it has a chance. The album’s title track spends most of its four-and-a-half minutes trapped in an aimless, almost tuneless haze.
All We Grow is surely the work of a confident, able composer. However, Carey seems to need more time with his ideas, more of a willingness to take risks and break his songs out of their initial molds. We don’t need him to be Bon Iver, and we should thank Vernon for giving Carey’s talents a launching point. Still, it’s hard not to want something more satisfyingly dynamic from All We Grow, something more focused and tight. Carey’s at least likely working on a follow-up, already.