On Bon Iver’s acclaimed 2008 debut For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon subverted the usual formula for a confessional singer-songwriter record, conveying the emotional core of his songs via the sound of his lyrics—which rang down in a blurry, inarticulate choir of overdubbed vocals—rather than their literal meaning. With Volcano Choir, his years-in-the-making collaboration with Milwaukee post-rock instrumental band Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, Vernon embraces full-blown abstraction on the willfully difficult Unmap. Fans of For Emma might think he’s lost the songs in the process—only the bubbling “Island, IS” is satisfying in a traditional, pop-friendly sense. The rest of the record consists of slow-building, noodly, frequently pretty sketches like “Still,” where Vernon’s vocals are treated like another instrument floating in the ether.
Perhaps Unmap makes more sense as a 35-minute mood piece than as a collection of songs, but even then, it can be hard to access. Listening to the free-floating plunking and cooing of “Mbira In The Morass” is like trying to embrace a heavy fog, though the funky one-minute coda “Cool Knowledge” is perhaps Unmap’s most purely pleasurable moment. For the most part, however, Unmap seems to have been constructed more for the head than the soul, making it easier to admire for its boldly uncommercial audacity than love for its actual music.