If you think it’s going to be tough for Justin Vernon to deliver after the huge success of Bon Iver’s 2007 album, For Emma, Forever Ago, imagine the uphill battle for a dude who toured in his band. S. Carey joined Vernon as a part of his Bon Iver touring band after that album took off, and as valuable as that experience was, he spent much of it missing his soul mate back home.
From that ache, he began constructing All We Grow, his first solo album. And while it’s surely going to be tough to emerge from the shadow of For Emma, Forever Ago, Carey has delivered an understated and confident album, one that puts the burden on us to approach it as its own project, not as some leftover from Bon Iver. And we really should, because this is awfully good.
That’s not to say that there’s no connection to Carey’s work with Vernon. There’s the same haunting atmosphere and spreading echo that made the Bon Iver record, and the subsequent touring behind it, so affecting. But, though it does haunt, Carey’s atmosphere has its own feel. It doesn’t creak and groan, it seeths and swells. He can do as much with an acoustic guitar and vocals, as he does on the achingly quiet “Move,” as he can with layers of piano and shuffling percussion on standouts “We Fell” and “In the Stream.”
These highlights, and the sound of the record as a whole, are informed by Carey’s nearly encyclopedic musical knowledge. There are pop structures here, but they’re often stuffed awkwardly (in a good way) with leanings toward neo-classical compositions, ambient dissonance, and even the clustered-up guitars of experimental rock. These disparate elements make for an album that is both weighted down with a sinister thump and shuffles with a heartbreaking quiet. Look no further than “Mothers” in the middle of the record — with its faint guitar, desperate and layered vocals, and choppy piano lines — to see Carey’s gift here for meshing unlike elements into a convincing and emotional whole.
So while the sound of All We Grow, with its kitchen-sink approach and avant-garde leanings, is uniquely Carey’s, he may still be coming into his own as a front man. His voice lilts, beautiful and hurt, and he often states his wants plainly (“If I could run my fingers though your hair,” for example) over the complicated feeling of the music. But at times, the way it floats over the track almost makes his voice melt into the atmosphere of the song. So while you’ll never lose the sound of the record — if anything, this is a great headphone record, full of hidden gems — you may lose track of what he’s singing about.
Still, despite that minor complaint, Carey has made a debut record that is both solid in its own right and hints at the promise of great things to come. It reminds us why Carey meshed so well with Vernon in Bon Iver, but strikes out on its own rather than retreading that hyper-successful ground. Carey is surely smart enough to know that it is his time Bon Iver that’ll attract people to him, but he’s too good to keep making that same threadbare sound.