By ARIELLE CRUZ
The first time I streamed De Oro, the debut album from Jason Feathers — the most recent side project of Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon — I didn’t know whether to laugh or not. I did laugh, it was hard not to, but I couldn’t help this feeling or, rather, insecurity, that maybe I just wasn’t getting the music. That is the kind of reputation Vernon has quietly garnered for himself over the last few years — talented, a little different and low-key. Maybe this reputation is why someone didn’t stop him or ask too many questions when he put together De Oro, possibly one of the strangest musical style mixtures to make it onto the major music news sites in a while.
Let me back up. This album is not actually billed under the moniker Justin Vernon or Bon Iver, the artist behind the album is a fictional person, Jason Feathers, who in actuality is the combination of Vernon, Astronautalis, a Florida-born inde rapper and Bon Iver veteran S Carey. In reality De Oro is a rap album, but done in Justin Vernon’s signature folky, open, autotune-curious style. The combination is certainly new and certainly interesting, the album is an experimental one, however not all experiments give you a good result, and while De Oro is not quite a failed experiment, it is one that is unlikely to be repeated.
One of the boldest points of this album is the production. Between the long story that goes with the album that gives each band member a new stage name and a dark, seedy background, the lavish white suite-filled photoshoot (which was on Pitchfork earlier this week) and the music itself, filled with autotune, reverb and what sounds like a lot of expensive styling, this album was indulgent in every way. Indulgence isn’t always a bad thing, a lot of the techniques that Vernon uses in the production sound almost like Kanye West during the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy days. In fact, Vernon produced a track or two for West. But this time Vernon took the idea of combining two very different music styles just a little too far — his very distinguishable croon-rock clashes hard with Astronautalis gangster rap. I’m not talking about your Jay-Z style of gangster rap either, I’m talking Schoolboy Q and Tyler the Creator. In “Young as Fuck,” one of the more fun tracks on the album, the rap is great — entertaining, funny, well produced, no complaints — but then, out of nowhere, without a satisfying transition, we are plopped in the middle of a louder, more guitar-heavy indie-folk version of Bon Iver, unsure how we got there and why. What in any rap album should be the pinnacle, fuck you line of the song, “I am young as fuck, I am young as fuck,” we instead get Vernon crooning “young as fuuuuuck” with autotune on the “u” as if he is bemoaning some kind of lost love. In one introduction in “Pay the Guard,” the autotune makes Astronautalis sound identical to the voice on Madonna’s “Barbie Girl.” Some things just didn’t connect.
If this album had been a rap album it would have been awesome. If it had just been indie-rock it would have been good too. It contains lines like “fuck math, take a bubble bath” and “leave your stain, I’m gonna make it rain,” and an eight-minute song that sounds like a creepy reading of a Harmony Korine script. The ideas behind the album were fun, the background story enjoyed mocking itself (I hope) by creating a ridiculous and extensive band history. Vernon’s collaborations with West in the past worked well and almost everything he has tried his hand at has been lauded by someone. If he got one wrong, I would chalk it up to a bad day.