How can you follow up the wintry, isolationist heartbreak that seemingly burst out of Bon Iver’s debut album? How do you work up the courage for that second act? Willingly seek out heartbreak? Head back to the cabin? Wisely, Justin Vernon doesn’t even attempt such a thing. He’s avoided the damning weight of expectations with fucking acrobatic deftness by momentarily shedding the Bon Iver name. He’s joined up with oddball unit and kindred Wisconsonites Collection of Colonies of Bees to form the Volcano Choir and explore a whole new music. The first thing that you must understand is that the songs on Unmap are worlds away from the tear-stained lullabies of For Emma. The music here is not as prayerful and carefully constructed; it’s spontaneous, improvised, nonlinear, uncomfortable, and much more joyous. A song may be one minute in length or seven minutes in length, it may break down into grating percussive noise, static, or bucolic, burbling electro. Aesthetic schizophrenic futurism, with the only common thread being Vernon’s wondrously openhearted falsetto, soars to even greater heights when matched against his friends’ cubist doodles.
There are moments of pure, simple beauty, like “Island, IS.” “Dote” is like those wonderful mood pieces that linked the tracks on This Mortal Coil’s Blood — incidental, ghostly sounds and faint traces of Vernon’s androgynous sigh. “And Gather” is all group handclaps over childlike guitar and keyboard figures while the massed falsetto vocals egg each other on to greater heights — it’s like a meditation, a Steve Reich piece, and a playground game all at once. An auto-tuned Vernon in “Still” almost makes you want to laugh in disbelief were it not for the prayer-temple instrumental vibe of synth drone and hands lightly brushing guitar and harp strings, before it roars into life as the beginning (just the beginning, mind you) of a song that Coldplay or Radiohead would kill for. “Youlogy” is built around sparse, unadorned torch vocals intoning some ancient lullaby over leftover music. A tantalizing hint of a gospel/angel choir appears briefly like a flicker several times before disappearing into the aether. Out like a ghost.