Whenever I know that a girl shall be visiting me in my humble abode for whatever reason, I always ensure that my friend’s (not even my own) guitar is leaning against the wardrobe in my room as prop. “Oh, Marshall, you didn’t tell me you played guitar!” they’d say. I’d wave my hand in the same faux-modesty that I get from the entire record. “Play me something,” they’d say. We’d sit on the bed (there’s nowhere else to sit in my room). I’d place the capo in position. “Do you know ‘Skinny Love'”? I’d ask. “Oh my God, I love that song,” they’d hopefully respond. Regardless, I’d start playing “Skinny Love,” and then break out the most over-the-top falsetto they’d ever hear. Often they’d break out into uncontrollable laughter. Often we’d wind up making out (well, the making out has happened once so far. The laughter at the falsetto, twice).
There’s a reason I bring up this anecdote; people love Justin Vernon’s falsetto, and in a broader scope, people love anyone with a unique voice. It’s the Antony Hegarty phenomenon. People seem to think that falsetto automatically means soul, and by default, the fact that Justin Vernon is singing an entire album in falsetto means that he has something to say. Do you know what I hear on eight out of nine of these tracks (not counting the instrumental “Team”)? I can hear that one time when Justin Vernon’s father promised to be holding the bicycle but let go and poor Justin crashed on the pavement and skinned his knee. His mother put a spray-on bandaid on the boo-boo and gave him some chocolate while his father said “Stop coddling him!” Years later, Justin Vernon packs three pairs of different-colored and tattered skinny jeans and his acoustic guitar and tells his friends to come up to the cottage so they can write songs about similar childhood tragedies.
What I’m saying is, I’m not at all impressed with the album’s (boring) backstory, and I’m only sometimes impressed by Justin Vernon’s voice. I also think that if you took “Flume,” “Skinny Love,” “For Emma” and whittled “re: Stacks” to 4 minutes, you’d have a great EP on your hands. The rest of the tracks really aren’t worth talking about (and the people who love this record are too busy praising “Skinny Love” on repeat to defend them at all it seems): “The Wolves (Act I)” only exists for one to get to act II (not to mention the backing vocals on the coda were a horrible idea) (though the “In the morning” bit is pretty); “Blindsided,” a 5-minute exercise of sparseness, exists for one part only (when the repeated “would you really rush out” hook materializes into a full fledged chorus); “Team” is an instrumental that no one needs, and “Creature Fear” features some of the most grating dynamic shifts you’ve ever heard, likely because Justin Vernon realized that the two preceding tracks came close to putting himself to sleep and had the same effect on listeners.
Anyway, the positive stuff that elevates this from a B-score. The way he sings “Skinny Love” is incredibly human, seen in the enunciations of the “And I toldyou to be …” bits, and the emotional range of the last three lines, the angry “Who will love you?”, the longing, “Who will fight?” and the lonely, “Who will fall, far behind?” The reason why Birdy’s cover of the song fails in comparison is because those emotions are scrubbed away with overproduction and oversinging (covering the empty spaces during the “My, my, my” hook with extra “My, my, my”’s was a bad idea), and the only thing she has over Justin Vernon is she’s easier on the eyes (the guy really does need to shoot his barber) and because she had a good music video to help her. Great riff to boot. Similarly, I keep “Flume” around because he sounds like he’s crying during it. Elsewhere, “For Emma,” is a wonderful lyrical exercise thanks to the call-and-response-style lyrics, “(Him:) for every life / (Her:) forego the parable / (Him:) seek the light / (Her:) my knees are cold,” and the utterly romantic, “With all your lies / You’re still very lovable” – I can actually relate to that last one. Great horns to boot.
For his next album, he’ll up the arrangements (a good thing) and up the falsetto (a bad thing) and win a grammy because of it (a neutral thing).