Sometimes albums are released that don’t receive the amount of attention they deserve until well after the fact. In this case, Justin Vernon’s Self Record (2005) still doesn’t get the praise I think it deserves, but with the immense popularity of his main band, Bon Iver, more people are listening. I randomly ended up with this record on my hard drive through a friend and didn’t really dig it until this spring. It is now one of my most played and definitely my rain/sleeping/mellow anytime soundtrack.
The main difference between Vernon on this album, and his following Bon Iver (amongst other side projects) albums is the lack of falsetto. While that was what initially drew me to Bon Iver in the first place, Vernon’s regular warm and soulful voice adds a whole other dimension to his musical repertoire. Besides the difference in vocals, Self Record sounds a lot more roughly compiled- with some tracks recorded live, some quieter than others, and the overall lack of flow between songs. Self sounds like Vernon had a lot of material lying around and decided to make and album of it. While this hodge podge of a record probably wouldn’t have (and apparently didn’t) make Justin Vernon a household name on its own, the overall effect of the record is something intimate and worthwhile of any Bon Iver fan’s attention.
One song made it onto my most-played list before I actually sat down and gave the entire lengthy album a fair share: “The Orient. And the Gatsby’s Slew of Choices”. Contrasting with much of the album, this song sounds sort of pre-Volcano Choir experimental–with disjointed, technological-sounding vocal tones overlapped by soft, ringing keyboard and a pop-y beat. Sound incoherent? Strangely, it all flows together after the first ten seconds of vocal tones (which seem a little unnecessary) in a masterpiece of synthesizers and lyrical genius. I think if Vernon were to have used falsetto instead of his regular voice, it would have put this song over the top. But the balance of heartbreaking and poetic lyrics sung in his regular, almost vulnerable voice, pushes this up to the top on my list of all time favorite Vernon songs. It’s apparent that Vernon wrote the lyrics for most of the songs on the album for himself first and foremost, yet there just seems to be something familiar and relatable in their delivery–
“sell my car to the moving van, I’m the sea and you’re Japan, no great morning, no rising sun, the Gatsby in me I’m running from.”
Other songs on the album are a lot more transparent. “Sides”, played with only simple acoustic guitar, is a poignant statement about the Church’s behavior towards homosexuality. The final track on the album, “We Will Never Die”, is an ambient, 12-minute instrumental horn, bass and guitar track that is sure to lull you to sleep if the rest of the album hasn’t already procured enough wintery dreams. A live recording of “Drinking This Rain/I’m on Fire” seems to be the most randomly-placed track on the album; half of it-a Springsteen cover, and the other half-a doleful and personal, finger-picked longing lullaby to which many can relate:
“some call it sick and some call it pain, some just laugh at it, but honey it’s like the rain. It’s like when you’re thirsty and there’s none in the well. It’s like bringing darkness, when darkness has already fell. It’s like breaking dreams of a broken man, and nothing makes it come on down like the rain can.”
I could go on and on about every lyrical stroke of poetic genius on this album but I’m just going to suggest you track down a copy for yourself.
Album Track List:
1. The Whippgrass
2. Pier 39
3. O’re The Hills, ‘kneath the Gape
4. Drinking This Rain / I’m On Fire
5. Return To You
6. Above The Code
7. Sweet, Sweet Magdalene
8. How Many?
9. Right Down There In Your Tributary
10. April Four
11. The Orient. And The Gatsby’s Slew Of Choices
13. Ring Out
14. Redemption:1 (An Army Man And His Self-Discovery)
15. Death; Shake Of Me All Unclean
16. Nothing Better Than A Journey To You
17. We Will Never Die