Justin Vernon is nothing if not an aggressively safe songwriter. His more adventurous meanderings in indie rock with Volcano Choir and Gayngs aside, Vernon’s myriad projects all find him blending into the necessary stylistic surroundings required to garner favor in such genres.
Some work better than others: his impressionistic indie-rock on Bon Iver beats the just too Ryan Adams-y alt-country of DeYarmond Edison. Just so, his new “supergroup” The Shouting Matches plunges Vernon into blues-rock, coming up for air only to show off Grownass Man’s profound competency, if nothing close to revelatory genre experimentation.
Perhaps the reason Vernon gets so religiously praised in corners of the indie world is because of his wide competency in various genres. For fans unfamiliar with traditional blues-rock fare outside the watered-down hokum of Kings of Leon, Grownass Man will feel vital, a piece of retro statement-making with each twist down the American rock highway.
Vernon and company, Phil Cook and Brian Moen, grind down their vocals to a tin can and explode standout “Heaven Knows” with screaming harmonica and waves of heavy guitar reminiscent of Led Zeppelin or vintage Black Crowes.
Much of the record flows on these giant blues touchstone bands, veering onto the lighter side of the tracks to find a lovely, consistent guitar rhythm on the more accessible “Seven Sisters” or “I’ll Be True.”
Fans who only know Vernon from Bon Iver will find his delivery almost diametrically opposed to his more famous project’s vox; instead of remaining high in his falsetto (which honestly might have been a fascinating choice for Grownass Man), Vernon wanders back to the Marc Cohn-style R&B croon that made some of DeYarmond Edison’s albums so interesting. Taken together, Grownass Man hits immediate pleasure centers—the album’s closer, “I Need a Change,” is as soulful as you might hear an indie-rocker get.
Sad, then, that The Shouting Matches seem perfectly content to handle the blues-rock genre with encyclopedic competency and not push the envelope at all.
None of the songs on the record are in any way misfires, yet the album feels hollow of artistic intent or purpose.
For a record with such fantastic guitar tone as Grownass Man’s, as the instrumental “Milkman” bears out forcefully, looking back at it feels like surveying a landscape of missed opportunity. Perhaps some of this is intentional—arriving with little fanfare save for an immediate invitation to Coachella, The Shouting Matches don’t dictate themselves as anything other than a side project. Which, sadly, makes Grownass Man more or a lark than an album.
With the reinvigoration of R&B and soul into the hip-hop formula, blues-rock seems primed to find its way back into the lexicon of some of the more important (and consistent) indie-rock bands of the day. Justin Vernon, as Bon Iver, certainly fits this description. But The Shouting Matches, and Grownass Man, feels like a door opener for Bon Iver descendants to discover the healing power of a soulful voice and a passionately played guitar.
But the songs here feel like genre workouts primed to take off to an unseen place, only to fade out prematurely. For those few minutes, songs like “Seven Sisters” and “Avery Hill” take over. They are perfectly enjoyable blues-rock derivations played by Justin Vernon and friends. If used as a jumping off point, or simply as back porch beer drinking music, Grownass Man succeeds in almost every facet.
In terms of variations on the theme, or a concerted effort to move the genre forward à la Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Vernon seems not to care.
The Shouting Matches – Grownass Man Tracklist
- “Avery Hill”
- “Gallup, NM”
- “Heaven Knows”
- “Mother When?”
- “Seven Sisters”
- “New Theme”
- “Three Dollar Bill”
- “I’ll Be True”
- “I Need a Change”