It’s hard to get your head around Repave being a Volcano Choir album, rather than a Bon Iver one. After all, it does feature indie-folk darling Justin Vernon, who has a veritable Midas touch when it comes to music. This isn’t to discredit the non-J.V. members of Volcano Choir—instead, it’s a testament to Vernon’s distinct musical aesthetics. The songs on Repave aren’t significantly stylistically different from those on Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore album. And considering that Bon Iver was easily 2011’s best album, that’s really excellent news.
Take “Comrade,” the album’s clear highlight. Around 1:30 in, it swells much like “Perth” did—it’s orchestral, lush, and utterly beautiful. The lyrics are probably not the point here, and they certainly don’t hint at any sort of cohesive narrative. But when Vernon wails “You are just lawless, son,” it still feels important, whatever it is.
The instrumentals on Repave are, frankly, in a league of their own. There are very few musicians who manipulate such a broad range of sounds with the dexterity and skill that Vernon and company do (late-career Sufjan Stevens is the most apt comparison). On Repave, you’ll hear meticulously managed distortion, electro drums, chiming guitars, and artfully applied AutoTune. Volcano Choir, like Bon Iver, doesn’t seem bound by the rules and conventions that govern genres. It’s worth noting that when this reviewer opened the album file from Jagjaguwar, the songs appeared in iTunes as “avant pop.”
The question of sincerity is an interesting one within the context of Repave—Vernon has long come across as someone who means every word. The problem is that the lyrics on Repave are so specifically nonsensical that sincerity seems virtually impossible. Vernon’s use of lyrics approaches the impressionistic. The anthemic arrangements make Vernon’s ramblings feel deeply personal (and one supposes that this is intentional)—but very little meaning stems from the words themselves.
Regardless of how you feel about the lyrics, there’s no denying that Repave is musically brilliant. It bears some of the endearing strangeness that made Unmap, Volcano Choir’s first LP, so charming, while building on its sound. Like "Beth/Rest" the (reasonably user-friendly) power ballad on the last Bon Iver album, Repave seems destined to briefly perplex listeners before it charms them. This is, more or less, the best game a musician can play: music that stretches the expectations of the listener is usually tremendously rewarding, and has a lot of staying power.