on 14 May 2009
Like Dylan, Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver (it's a one-man show) understands that simple, acoustic-led arrangements married with lyrical depth can really pack a punch. Written during a self-imposed period of isolation in the Wisconsin woods after the break-up with his girlfriend and a serious illness, For Emma, Forever Ago is an achingly elegiac album and each track is an emotionally-charged vignette. Listen to Skinny Love for a sample of Vernon's musings on the loneliness of losing love or The Wolves (Act 1 and II) for a taste of accusatory hurt: `someday my pain will mark you. Harness your blame'. Despite its soul-baring, For Emma... is a surprisingly uplifting journey and a reminder of the beauty one man and his guitar can create.
In a similar vein to Damien Rice's debut album O, For Emma, Forever Ago is currently spending its gestation time simmering below the radar of popular consciousness before it surely soars into the affections of many. Like Damien Rice before him, Justin Vernon (who in this case goes by the alias, Bon Iver) has created a record of such delicate, intimate beauty that you are left amazed by how it could leave you quite so drained.
Although many reading this will already be aware of the context of this record and how it was made, it is integral to the listening experience and so worth mentioning again - although in truth, the music and melodies alone will be enough for some (perhaps more so given the lyrics are slightly hard to distinguish without the booklet). Following the break-up of his band and a relationship frustrated by an ongoing illness, Vernon 'hibernated' and ensconced himself in a cabin in the Wisconsin wilderness. His self-imposed isolation surfaced feelings of loss, guilt and longing carried over the years. With no real intention of recording, the three month exile ended up being musically inspiring and led to the recording of nine polished tracks - though polished doesn't seem like the correct word. The record's raw, organic constitution is thanks largely to the fact that Vernon was unprepared to record and used only basic equipment he had with him at the time. Each track offers little more than acoustic guitars, occasional electric guitar licks and an inventive use of vocal layering and haunting vocal reverb effects.
The album opens strongly with Flume and you are immediately aware that you are experiencing something of particular note. Instantly, the album's striking sense of poignancy seems to flood out of Vernon's falsettos and harmonies. The song's passing lyric "Sky is womb / And she's the moon" leaves you wondering long into the next track. Like nearly all of Vernon's poetry, the subject is always kept at arms length. Each song's meaning is left twisted and hidden from view, reflective of Vernon's lonely, tortured circumstance. Lump Sum picks up the pace with its 4/4 intro - its seductive chorus having you mimic the "Or so the story goes" refrain before you realise.
Picking up tiny lyric segments and being attached to them is a real feature of the album - again largely due to its low fidelity recording. Skinny Love is reminiscent of Lennon circa Dear Prudence as Vernon's anguish bears itself in a series of searing exclamations: "Who will love you? / Who will fight? / Who will fall far behind?" With its own sense of momentum each track seems to provide the perfect platform for the next. The rousing finale of The Wolves (Act I and II) and its repetition "What might have been lost / What might have been lost / What might have been lost" vignettes Blindsided's palpable sense of unexpected love and expected heartbreak, beautifully.
Although this album challenges more than it resolves, there are moments of hope and love. For Emma, perhaps the album's only song to be composed in a major key, describes a playful dispute between lovers and is a relieving tonic to the album's sometimes claustrophobic sense of solitude. It ends with the well-timed: "With all your lies / You're still very loveable." The song's stirring use of brass instruments acts to soothe after some of the album's darker moments. The album's farewell is another mesmeric highlight. Its simple verse and chorus cycle could happily turn over another ten times, weaving and meandering before the stacked staccato delivery of the song's chorus leaves an indelible impression on even the most thick-skinned listener.
Like many of the classic albums, albums that seem to pass through decades while hardly ageing, it is as if every moment - from the nagging, buzzing guitar string heard during Flume to the appearance of a vocoder during The Wolves (Act I and II) - no matter how incongruous it may seem, becomes ultimately fundamental to the album's success. For Emma, Forever Ago is the product of a time spent alone; a period of immense self-realisation, introspection and reflection. Justin Vernon's catharsis has benefited everyone. Among its cold chill are moments of genuine beauty and the message that we are all capable of confronting our fears and loss. This is the first musical masterpiece of the new century.
on 5 January 2009
I was first introduced to Bon Iver's music through a cover of "Skinny Love" that a mate of mine was playing at a gig. Although I didn't catch the whole song, even just a snippet of it was enough to make me want to get into this stuff - I was blown away by the power and depth of the songwriting, as well as the beautifully honest lyrics. And when I came to buying the album, I was far from disappointed - that particular song is still a stand-out, but the rest of the album is just as sublime.
Lyrically, "For Emma, Forever Ago" could be read as one long narrative, brimming with honesty, jealousy, guilt, love, loss, pain and a sense of loneliness which can only have come from the circumstances in which it was recorded - Justin Vernon, the mastermind behind the three-piece (though Vernon regularly plays solo as well), wrote and recorded practically the entire album with aged recording gear and a few microphones during 3 months spent absolutely alone in his father's hunting lodge in the woods of Wisconsin, USA. This time was originally going to be used exclusively for 'soul searching' and recovery from sickness and breakups (from both his band and girlfriend), though luckily for us it seems that the only way he was able to effectively channel his emotions was through songwriting and recording.
Even right from delicate opener "Flume," it is obvious that there has been no holding back in the writing of these songs - though often cryptic, there is no doubt that these lyrics are pure, unspoilt poetry - "Only love is all maroon / Lapping lakes like leery loons / Leaving rope burns - reddish ruse" may not be the most accessible refrain, but that is just not what this record is about. There is no shortage of pain here - "Now all your love is wasted / And who the hell was I?" he laments on "Skinny Love," but this is balanced with a rare sense of wisdom and self-awareness. Closer "Re:Stacks" is almost meditative - "This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization / It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away" is the closest that this album gets to optimism, but it is just as spellbinding as every other line on the record.
Musically, there are few comparisons that one could reasonably make with this album- vocally, Justin Vernon doesn't have the delicacy of Jeff Buckley (who seems to have somewhat unfairly become the unofficial benchmark for every male singer/songwriter on the planet), and the guitar work is nothing flashy, but one can not help but envy the obvious musical freedom that has been exercised during the making of this record - almost certainly due to the loneliness and isolation that he must have experienced during this time.
Because of this, the instrumentation is varied and flexible like nothing else I have ever heard before - the soundscapes range from understated yet innovative guitar ballads such as "Creature Fear" and "Blindsided" to lush choirs ("Lump Sum") to the sparse 'gospel-like' vocal arrangement on "The Wolves (Act 1&2)," a haunting masterpiece which eventually unfolds to become a thunderous, schizophrenic, beautiful mass of what could be literally hundreds of layered vocals, pounding acoustic guitars and rowdy percussion. Though even at it's musical 'biggest,' there is an all-pervading sense of poignant loneliness, or perhaps 'intimacy,' throughout the album - if you are anything like me, you will be constantly reminded of the fact that this record was made by a man completely isolated from the world. Though this is no bad thing - it only adds to the charm.
Overall, "For Emma, Forever Ago" reads like a revealing trip, both lyrically and musically, into Justin Vernon's troubled, world-weary mind. However, this is no pathetic, whiny, false attempt at honesty - this is a real, dynamic, vibrant masterpiece which will surely shape the next generation of songwriting.
on 20 August 2008
I bought this CD on recommendation from Amazon, so bit of a risk for me.
At first I wasn't convinced, but left it in the car. And what I've found is pretty amazing - the feeling I get when this is playing is one of such serenity and calmness, it's wonderful. Now, when this is playing, trips in the car are less about the destination and more about the journey.
on 6 September 2015
Like no doubt thousands of young guys and girls during the late 00's, I got my heart broken to the soundtrack of Bon Iver. I was an undergraduate at university, and as Nick Hornby in High Fidelity observed, it was hard to tell what came first - was I miserable because I loved Bon Iver, or did I love Bon Iver because I was miserable? Did my enjoyment of the album instil in me a subconscious desire to experience the same things Justin Vernon sang about, draped in eerie harmonies, clicks and scrapes, to run the same gamut of emotions, or was it simply catharsis with the pain that he sings so vividly and almost tangibly about that drew me in closer to the warm tones? Regardless, the album For Emma, Forever Ago brings back powerful, if unrefined, emotions. The peculiar flavour of heartbreak, with its delicate, absolute and all-consuming awfulness and despair is a memory that I think we can all remember or at least empathise with. And it's at its most beautiful in songs like Skinny Love, re:stacks and Blindsided, (and Beach Baby from the LP, Blood Bank) songs of anger, mourning, shock, pain, loss, sadness, and ultimately, by the end of the album, acceptance and redemption. It's an intense experience that draws the listener in and confronts them with raw emotion, exposing their own feelings.
On a more personal level, this was the first album for me that addressed love and loss in such an oblique manner ('there's a black crow sitting across from me; his wiry legs are crossed / And he's dangling my keys, he even fakes a toss' is only one example of many) so as, counter intuitively, to make it seem more genuine, free from what I perceived to be the clichés of songs about heartbreak. Undoubtably the rich use of metaphor, the true impart of the songs wrapped up tightly in the words and sounds rather than overtly on display was a big part of why I liked it so much. It's a deeper album that rewards careful listening on a quiet Saturday night, and although student me devoured it, it's not a self-indulgent piece of navel-gazing only fit for those inexperienced in love - to assume that would be to miss out on something truly special. It's a beautifully crafted paean to the experience of loss, a timeless part of the universal experience of the human condition.
I think most of use at some time or other would like to retreat from everyday life and grab some real solitude but most of us don't have the bottle to do it and even if we did probably wouldn't stand it for more than a couple of days. After the demise of his band DeYarmond Edison Justin Vernon departed to his fathers log cabin in North-western Wisconsin for the months of November, December and January in 2006/2007.He lived off the land and he recorded this wonderful album, though the album notes point out that a "small amount" of additional recording was done afterwards.
It's effectively just the man and his guitar and his pining falsetto vocal. There is additional trumpet and trombone on "For Emma" and percussion on "Flume " but other than that it's just guitar and voice though the vocals are adroitly multi-tracked at times to give a ghostly choral effect. It's ironic that this album has been picked up in the U.K. by 4AD(Along with Jagjaguwar)as it occasionally evokes the spectral nuances of many of a 4AD band- "Lump Sum" could be off This Mortal Coils "It'll End In Tears".
Bon Iver is a bastardisation of the French Bon Hiver meaning good winter and though the album was recorded in the suffocating cold of a Wisconsin winter it has a hazy refracted ambience that recalls sunnier times . His ascetic approach will lead to comparisons with Iron And Wine while his high range vocals remind me of Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio. I bet I'm not the only one to point that out. It also reminds me of Phosphorescent 2007 album "Pride" in parts though I might be more isolated on that one.
The songs are extremely subtle with diaphanous melodies and lyrics with distorted imagery .It may take half a dozen listens for some of the songs to fully gel ."Blindsided" is one of the sparser tracks on the album and can sound flat and one dimensional on first listen but further investigation reveals its hidden depths and substance. Other songs like "Flume" "Lump Sum" , "Skinny Love" and the brassy "For Emma" are more immediate but every track on For Emma ,Forever Ago" is suffused with a tangible depth of subjective experience that resounds in every note and lyric. On the lovely and fragile closing "Re:Stacks" he sings "This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realisation / It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away/ Your Love will be safe with me".
I feel that Emma is just a name that Justin Vernon plucked out of the air. This is an album about more than one relationship .It's an album about many , about a lifetime , all be it a relatively short one, of associations, affairs...whatever you want to call them. As he sings on "The Wolves (Act I and II)" "Someday my pain will mark you". maybe he got it out of his system recording this remarkable album but one things for sure ...this music will mark you too.
on 7 May 2008
Uncut very rarely give out 5 star reviews, so on that basis Bon Iver's debut was something to go and search out. To be honest on first listen I didn't get past the vocal similarity to TV On The Radio (with that same echo of Peter Gabriel). On third and fourth listen I wasn't convinced that there was more than strumming and "pleasant" sounds here. But as is common with a few albums there comes a moment (and in hindsight you're never sure when it was) everything clicked into place, and yes indeed I agree this is worthy of all of those 5 stars.
These are not so much songs as soundscapes, put together like watercolours. Mostly white but with expertly crafted detail. The Uncut reviewer gave "Skinny Love" the only 4 star mark on the album, and I totally disagree, I love that track. If there was any of these to be marked down then it would be the opener "Flume" but that would be harsh.
If I have a criticism it is that with "Creature Fear" and "Team" being essentially two parts of the same track, there are actually only 8 songs and I feel slightly short changed. But that's only a minor gripe. There are too many "hairs standing up on the scalp" moments to really criticise.
An excellent debut and I look forward to more to come.
on 27 February 2009
Sparse instrumentation, melodies created from pure musical craftsmanship. The silence between the notes occasionally splayed with creaking and shuffled footsteps. Authentic squeaks and scrapes abound as the guitar is flexed and put through it's steps.
This is a great album. Subtle and understated. Obscure lyrics but also personal ones. Justin Vernon (Bon Iver's real name) lets us into his heartbreak and desolation but does not preach. The music is bleak, hopeful and warm all at the same time. His voice is raw and frayed but also stunningly angelic when he reaches falsetto. People can be put off by it's simplicity. There's no glossed over production and the guitar is played in a conventional, familiar bare-bones style. Nine tracks that live and breathe amongst the silence.
on 19 February 2008
When I first decided (from the rave reviews) to buy this album I was not entirely sure what to expect,
you know how these things seem to get over hyped by journalists subjective love of an album.
I understood that the vocalist/musician Justin Vernon marooned himself in a cabin in the wilds of north
Wisconsin for 3 months seeking solitude and silence. What was meant to be a period of self reflection
ended up with him creating this masterpiece of work. To be honest, my response when the 1st track was
2 mins in was 'I don't think I'm gonna like this' but I stayed with it and very soon melted away to the
gentle persuasion of his simple arrangements and soulful heart wrenching voice. Tracks 'Creature Fear' and
'Re: Stacks' are the standout tracks for me...haunting melodies with surprising twists and turns..I now
return to this album over and over, each time I hear something new...sonically and vocally...quite astounding!
I can not praise this album enough...Don't wait, buy this album ASAP.
on 28 May 2008
Like a beautifully textured carpet but not as interesting. Short on melody, lyrically threadbare with some cod Beach Boys harmonising and rudimentary strumming. There are some obvious influences here (Bonny Prince Billy, Iron & Wine, Mercury Rev etc).
The Appalachian cabin and broken heart is a journalistic eye catcher; it certainly sounds more authentic than being chucked and sulking in a garden shed. But a lot of great albums germinate in solitude and are the result of emotional turmoil, so it's really nothing new.
One also wonders about the wisdom of a bear of a man singing in a keening multitracked falsetto as a way of recapturing a lost girlfriend. A bottle of chardonnay and a Barry White platter would probably have been far more effective.
The album is moderately good in parts - but not that original, and not that poetic (despite some clumsy obscurity). After 4 listens all the way through - it is pretty samey. It's doubtful the 2nd album will be received so rapturously.
The more fanatical fans and disciples should maybe get themselves a portastudio and have a go themselves. The deeper they delve - the less impressed they will be with this particular work.
On a positive note, and in a similar field, try "After The Gold Rush" - Neil Young (for an example of fantastically tuneful high pitch warbling), early Elliott Smith (for musical & lyrical invention) or most Nick Drake (the original man in a shed).
Despite the hype, I'd advise giving this a good long stint on the listening post before buying.
File under - sensitive mock olde timey cove with a beard; they are legion at the moment.