The term “folk” has become such an anomaly in today’s underground music scene — a label applied with so much gusto and baggage in the latter half of our decade and having lost so much of its original definition — that these days it’s implied more as an aesthetic than in relation to any particular instrumental approach. What exactly makes you “folk”? Does playing with a palette of primarily acoustics earn you the “folk” tag? How about spirited, communal harmonies about societal hardships and social unrest? Maybe somber, introspective singer-songwriterisms delivered with a few simple chords and a tender heart does the trick? Whatever it may be, the man who has come to embody that stamp for so many indie aficionados over the past few years has hardly let it dictate or weigh down his creative resolve. After winning the hearts of flanneled boys and girls across the globe with his astounding debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon explodes the boundaries of folk with this left-field release, awaited on with as much curiosity as hot-mouthed anticipation.
Written and recorded with his friends in Collections of Colonies of Bees years before the release of Vernon’s aforementioned critical darling, and before even the break-up of his previous band (which in part provided a catalyst for his heartbroken opus), unleashing this rough gem of an album on the heels of such a warmly received, emotionally affecting indie hit was a risky decision. In letting its meeting of chilly-and-toasty atmospherics sink in, it proves to also be the smart move, and one that pays dividends, at that. It may not be a direct follow-up for Justin Vernon, but it’s a brave, bold move among a crowd so eager to spit you out en route to finding The Next Big Thing.
Listeners seeking a more group-oriented Emma will only be partially satisfied, as Unmap reveals itself as not so much a complete and total departure from Vernon’s previous work, but a slightly weirder, marginally artier, more adventurous side road strolling briskly in the same general direction. Wounded falsetto vocals still stir over a pot of creaky, croaky aural stew, but the structures here are subverted with an ear for the experimental. This is Tom Waits and Brian Eno feverishly concocting a dense and spacey mélange by an icy campfire in the dead of winter. There is a compelling meeting between the junkie and the ambient here, bouncing off of each other and creating something otherworldly while still retaining an earthy quality.
Layered with ghoulish, ghostly overdubbed harmonies and supported with scratchy, muted and slippery tones on both organic and electronic equipment, the details in the music slide in and out of earshot while creating a contained environment reminiscent of cold, natural imagery as viewed from the inside out. There is a hushed, uneasy beauty here, characterized by off-kilter arrangements taking curved paths toward exits newly unearthed by sonic experimentation. At one moment soothing, each turn eventually finds its way back home through hazardous detours that never fail to illuminate new facets of a sound that has become comforting to so many.
That dichotomy of comfort and eeriness — striving to co-exist yet fighting rhythmically for the same breath — is what makes this such a refreshing, revitalizing experience, even as it’s difficult to catch on first, second, or even third listen. The best music slowly and gradually exposes its multiple dimensions as it unravels over repeated spins, and Unmap is no different. It’s clear there’s a palpable camaraderie spurning the creative process here, at times indulgent but never so much as to alienate the audience. There may be an arcane message of self-pleasing amidst Vernon and the boys, but it’s as fascinating as it can be frustrating. We, as the listener, feel like we’re being let in on a beautiful secret as we observe a band of brothers evolving and satisfying their whims and desires.
No, there is nothing here as instantly gripping or emotionally charged as “Skinny Love”, but what this album lacks in immediacy it more than makes up for in its willful playfulness. Due to its somber tones, it may be easy to miss that sense of woolly, wily buoyancy, but the highlights here serve to illustrate that ease in gravitas. The aptly-titled, finger-plucked “Husks and Shells” sounds as if it’s being carried afloat on a calming sea of almost wordless harmonies and bleeping blips, opening the album in a disquieting fashion that emboldens the underlying element of celestial unease. The most pop-oriented moment here, “Island, IS”, rolls by on a loping hook of unintelligible yet controlled vocal lines amidst its cascading, shuffling backing track. “Still” recasts “Woods”, the most experimental track on Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP from earlier this year, in a more collective, slathered effort, reverberating with life and building on the original’s half-baked trial run. Album closer “Youlogy” — sounding almost like a long-lost traditional folk anthem (think “Amazing Grace” covered in fog and ice and buried in a dusty tomb for a century) — dissolves into an effective swan song, its dissonant, mournful innocence struggling to synchronize itself with the sputtering, hopeful strength flowing beneath the surface. Even the slighter songs stumbling between the stand-outs, filled with rousing hand-claps and stomping, mumbling backwoods chants, hardly idle as mindless filler, instead acting as the glue that binds these disparate tunes together, enhancing the tangible unity among the band members.
Maybe this isn’t the soft-spoken, lovely-as-moonlight follow-up Bon Iver’s ardent fans were waiting on, but it would be a shame to dismiss this record as a vanity project. In fact, for those who give Unmap the time and patience it requires to flourish and sink its claws in, they’ll find that it makes a fitting complement to its predecessor’s wintry, snowy glow. Mood music that doesn’t fade into the ether shapelessly, and as inviting and sublimely-crafted as this, is a rarity in today’s hyper-active, MP3-oriented music scene. Perhaps it’ll never earn For Emma‘s unrivaled reputation as being music to hang your hearts and dreams upon, but it’s a dynamic batch of aural wilderness to get lost in. So wander on.