How do you follow a debut album that is hailed as an instant classic and catapults you into the spotlight almost overnight? Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, found himself in the unenviable position of having to do just that after the success of his near perfect debut 'For Emma, Forever Ago' in 2008.
For someone not entirely comfortable with the idea of fame, it would be difficult enough, but for Vernon, who appears on the face of it to be the antithesis of rock star material, it must have been particularly uncomfortable. Here was a guy who wrote a bunch of intensely personal songs while holed up in an isolated cabin emerging to instant, fervent acclaim and a level of fame that saw his songs routinely butchered on programs like X Factor by the latest batch of wannabe pop stars.
For a while, he seemed somewhat unsure of his next step – a low key E.P. Blood Bank followed, before his first collaborative album with members of the band Collections of Colonies of Bees was released under the moniker Volcano Choir. Having announced he would be shelving Bon Iver indefinitely in 2012, Repave sees Vernon resurrect the Volcano Choir project for an album that feels a whole lot more solid than its predecessor. Whereas Unmap felt like a series of sketches and very much a sideline project, Repave is uniformly strong, perhaps reflecting a renewed focus and commitment on Vernon's part now that Bon Iver has been parked.
Early previews of the track 'Byegone' suggested that this Volcano Choir album would be less experimental than the first and would see a move towards more traditional song based structures. By and large, that's the way this album has panned out and it is all the better for it – the expansive, fuller arrangements on songs like 'Comrades' and 'Tideways' acting as a perfect foil for Vernon's distinctive vocal. This is a less introspective, looser version of the Vernon that wrote that classic Bon Iver debut album; free of the shackles of expectation, songs like 'Acetate' have room to breathe and there is a flow and fluidity to these tracks that suggests a real chemistry at work.
Nobody knows for certain whether we have seen the last of Justin Vernon in the guise of Bon Iver; that debut album has cast a long shadow over everything he has done since. Repave is the sound of Vernon emerging from that shadow, and provides compelling evidence that he is still a creative force to be reckoned with.
Review by Paul Page