Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon seems endlessly attracted to the American musical landscape. Hell, he’s known for isolating himself in a cabin to record his first album. What’s more ruggedly American than that? His 2011 self-titled masterpiece, despite being layered with synths and saxophones, had a sense of freedom and exploration to it that echoed mid-’60s Bob Dylan. With The Shouting Matches—his new side project with Megafun’s Phil Cook and Peter Wolf Crier’s Brian Moen—Vernon moves from the snow-laden folk of his previous work to an exploration of Southern blues with the group’s debut, Grownass Man. Although fans of Bon Iver may be a bit shocked at the left turn, Grownass Man is a delightful, energetic blast of rock that displays another (perhaps simpler) side of Vernon’s songwriting.
Certainly, Grownass Man is grittier than any of Vernon’s other work, and one could easily cite influences ranging everywhere from John Lee Hooker to The Black Keys. Some moments are raucous fun, like the punchy, upbeat “Mother, When?” Others, like “Heaven Knows,” trudge in a heavy, distorted haze. “I’ll Be True,” the outlier of the bunch, has a Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams feel to it, likely influenced by Vernon’s folkie past.
If nothing else, Grownass Man is a fine-tuned piece of work with three musicians who have clearly mastered their craft. Moen and Cook, though perhaps in the background of the mix (and the coverage of this band), are master musicians who make each track truly pop, whether through Moen’s harsh drums on the moody “Three Dollar Bill” or Cook’s rallying keyboards on “New Theme.” Vernon, meanwhile, exchanges his trademarked falsetto coo for a growl that fits the material like a glove and trades his airy folk strumming for a harsh, jagged blues guitar. Grownass Man illustrates each of these musicians at the top of his craft, and it reveals Vernon’s surprisingly lithe, genre-hopping personality.
With this major stylistic shift, though, Vernon and company lose a bit of the power and mystery that made Bon Iver’s work so incredibly endearing in the first place. The surrealism and grandiosity of 2011’s self-titled LP have been traded for a much simpler, more conventional formula. This isn’t to say that any of the tracks are bad—in fact, this is some of the finest blues-rock you’ll find today. But there was something truly exciting about Bon Iver’s cryptic lyrics and layered melodies. These songs feature more simple, accessible, straightforward imagery, and while some, like “Seven Sisters” and “I Need A Change,” are incredibly well-written and emotive tracks, the experience of going back and discovering something new with each listen is sorely missed. Coming from an artist with a reputation for innovation and complexity, Grownass Man feels unexpectedly light, which is certainly a double-edged sword.
Grownass Man may not pack the emotional punch of Vernon’s work as Bon Iver. But no album in 2013 rocks and rolls quite like this one. In crafting a powerfully engaging blues album, Vernon has matured as an artist, ready to explore yet another musical highway. With The Shouting Matches, Vernon has become musically what the album proudly proclaims—a Grownass Man.