Remember the story of King Midas? You know, the guy who got his wish, that everything touched would turn to gold, only to regret that choice when he found that he couldn’t eat, drink, or even touch his daughter without them being turned into solid gold? Yeah, well, imagine that King Midas was a musician and it was metaphorical gold (or literal gold, but the bank account kind). Now imagine that it wasn’t a curse, but solely a gift and you’ll have an idea of how Justin Vernon must be feeling right about now. After releasing For Emma, Forever Ago, almost by himself to critical acclaim, the frontman of Bon Iver released his self-titled, sophomore album to rave reviews and won himself a few Grammys. Naturally, his next steps have been something of a departure. First, he collaborated with Kanye West and now we have The Shouting Matches, Vernon’s new/old band with Phil Cook (Megafaun) and Brian Moen (Peter Wolf Crier). It must be difficult to be so talented and seem incapable of releasing anything but exceptional music.
This new blues trio have just released Grownass Man which, aside from being awesomely titled, is an amazingly fun blues album. Make sure you get this before the summer starts so that you can listen to it on repeat during all those drives you do this summer. It seems perfectly suited for an early summer release. Perhaps the most noticeable difference, aside from this being blues music, is Vernon’s natural voice. We’ve grown so accustomed to the falsetto laden tracks of Bon Iver that it’s almost difficult to recognize his voice in this context. I’m not sure why he doesn’t use this voice more often though. It seems almost better, more emotional, more real than the falsetto we’re used to. It’s perfect for blues music.
The album starts with “Avery Hill”, a fun standard blues song about a lost connection (“I said love, why would you follow me just to diss and borrow and blind?”). Grownass Man really hits its stride on “Gallup, NM”, a 5+ minute song that uses keyboards to give this song a really authentic blues sound. When Vernon sings “You know that your lies are talking when you know that your lies are walking with the truth” and then erupts into more than two minutes of (certainly improvised) blues soloing, it’s nearly breathtaking and makes this song with hardly any lyrics one of the best on the album.
“Heaven Knows” is an awesome hard blues song with some cool vocal effects and a hard rock guitar riff at its center. With a chorus that starts with “Heaven knows you’re the kind of lady” and ends with “God damn it, y’all”, this is the stuff that blues is made of and it’s nearly perfect. There’s a much more pleasant, melodic sound on “Seven Sisters”, using vocal harmonies to sing “I can’t find my lover”, which is a small musical shift, all the while keeping the blues pedal on the floor. There’s one instrumental song on the album, “Milkman”, which might be the most upbeat song of them all.
Perhaps the least bluesy song, and the most positive in terms of lyrics, is “New Theme”. It’s full of harmonies and that blues organ sound and it’s all about what he’d do for the woman he loves, whether she loves him or not. I mean, it’s positive, but this is a blues album. The best songs are the ones that make you feel and, on this album, there’s “I’ll Be True”. It’s a song about staying true to a woman, no matter what (including her lack of desire to stay true herself). It’s nearly heartbreaking to listen to Vernon croon “You may take another man,/ But I’ll be true./ Never through or over you,/ Til they’re sending you to heaven,/ I will wait for you” over beautifully intricate guitar parts.
Grownass Man ends with a song that Ray Charles would be proud of, “I Need a Change”. Picture a relationship that starts quickly and full of passion and fizzles slowly and painfully. It’s the kind of song and feeling that the blues is made of. This song is quintessential to what we would call blues music. It’s the perfect way to end an incredible album, one that will surely be in my cd player all summer long and will undoubtedly be on my lists at the end of the year. This is the kind of album you dream of finding and, it should come as no surprise, we’ve got Justin Vernon and friends to thank yet again.