Jason Feathers’ De Oro is the long-awaited collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and indie rapper Astronautalis. Both have made careers out of artful genre defiance and passionate, sometimes heartrending lyrics. If you’re looking to hear “Secrets on Our Lips” mashed up with “Calgary”, dear friend, you best check your expectations at the door. De Oro is another beast entirely — but it is a beast.
“I take that shot, I get passed out, I wake up in some living rooms — I do not give any fucks.” Welcome to the Flori-bama spring break abyss of Jason Feathers. The project stems from a single weekend recording session back in 2012 where Astronautalis and Vernon were joined by Bon Iver drummer/vocalist S. Carey and GAYNGS’ Ryan Olson. The result, transmuted by two years of production, is a concept record re-casting these artists as tall-tale serial felons with a penchant for intoxicant-fueled musical revelry. De Oro doesn’t brandish a narrative concept; rather it’s an immersive portal into the underbelly of Southern beach towns, where the Lost Boys of summer have grown into nightmares that wait under your bed with a TEC-9.
Astronautalis’ voice has been pitch-shifted inhumanly low to become the titular character, Jason Feathers, aka Creflo, and Vernon has become the “guitar-crooning lost cowboy” Ephasis, whose melodic vocals have been Auto-Tuned to harmonic oblivion. Jason Feathers’ sound is varied — from classic rock guitar solos to drum and bass, and even some of Bon Iver’s atmospheric pianos — all meshed by haunting distortions and other touches of audio grime. Just as The Weeknd accomplished with last year’s Kiss Land, De Oro puts a lens on a lifestyle that might look cool from a distance but is a living hell on the inside, held together by machismo, delusions of grandeur, and drugs. It’s a powerful and scary place to get lost in.
The comparisons to other records stop there, however. The album’s stories of youth and excess are set against its own unique backdrop. The diverse backgrounds of the Feathers crew have fermented into a complex melding of styles and sounds, making for the musical equivalent of a late-night joyride. Yet, the true allure of De Oro is how that sound plays with the lyrics.
Though each of the nine tracks may be disconnected, they all take root in Central and North Florida landscapes where old-timey beach towns, 24-hour surf shops, and suburban chain stores bleed into the backwoods. It’s about looking for God while in line at Golden Corral (“Courtyard Marriot”). It’s about waiting for Ron John to descend from heaven (“Sacred Math”). It’s about gangsters, frat boys, bankers, and housewives scoring from the white-suited, eyepatch-clad Creflo, who’s “got them drugs you like” (“Leave Your Stain”). It’s strangely thrilling to see an artist like Astronautalis, normally so divergent from the hallmarks of mainstream rap, dive headfirst into stories of crime and debauchery. Stranger still to see Vernon deep in the middle of it — but together they own it.
One of the greatest accomplishments of De Oro is its balance of humor and horror alongside moments of unexpected humility. Granted, that humility is often one-sided — the Creflo persona has a carefully guarded, evil exterior. In “Canary in a Goldmine”, Creflo narrates a gangster power fantasy about a bank robbery: The robbers are so smooth and so cool that a female teller lays a slow kiss on one of them after loading in the cash. Vernon also sings as the repentant “canary” Creflo vows to meet in the yard and “put a fuckin’ shiv in his spine.” “Sacred Math” presents an eerie timeline narrated by Creflo, a recounting of the events of spring break in the early ’80s to the present. It plays out like David Lynch going Southern Gothic, with visions of spraying girls with “blood red malt” from a squirt gun, “choppin’ crab legs in the lines,” and losing virginity on a neighbor’s front lawn. “Young as Fuck” celebrates belligerent YOLO recklessness, a life of zero accountability. But, in “Pay the Guard”, Feathers explores heartfelt nostalgia for spring break fever: “You call the cops on me?/ Just remember when times were better for Coco Beach/ Make love on catamarans that the rich folks keep/ Suntan, hand in hand, all spring break week.” When Creflo sings, “I’m sorry momma,” and muses about living safely in the eye of a hurricane, you know he doesn’t really mean it — but it’s still heartbreaking.
Amidst all this drama, there’s still room for hilarious ad libs, even in the opening of “Pay the Guard”: “This ain’t no college album, playboy. This is a professional album. Fuckin’ LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, all ‘dis. Ya ain’t fuckin’ wit me, Wilt Chamberlain. I got like twenny thousan’ bitches.” Then there’s charming-yet-gross moments like in “Hot Forever”, where Creflo sings, “Brand new heels, but I love the lips,” a thought he leaves unfinished until verses later, finally revealing the punchline: “…even though she got some herpes on it.”
Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, De Oro feels like too short a ride. But looking at the journey on the whole, the Jason Feathers crew pack a novel into these nine songs, deftly developing their themes, characters, and narrative. The world that Vernon and Astronautalis build is compelling in its grimy darkness, opening up more with each listen.
Essential Tracks: “Young as Fuck”, “Sacred Math”, and “Pay the Guard”