Rarely can memories, long since gone and forgiven, be revived into such flushed and aching forms as on Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. The brainchild of creative force Justin Vernon (of Rosebuds and DeYarmond Edison fame), Bon Iver emerged from Vernon’s three-month hibernation in the woods of Northwestern Wisconsin, living in a cabin with little more than a tractor and the ghosts of his past for company.
It’s no wonder, then, that For Emma finds itself at the nexus of compositional sparseness and emotional rawness. Such bare-bones acoustic musings have drawn comparisons to Iron & Wine, but the guitar and woodsman’s beard are about all Vernon has in common with Sam Beam. The most subtle incorporation of drum machines, horns, and vocal effects transforms Bon Iver’s music from the quiet afterthought that characterizes much of today’s indie-folk into a sonic landscape of moods and nuances. Most remarkable, however, is Vernon’s voice: a pleading, honest falsetto that occasionally slips in and out of lower ranges with grace and gusto. Indeed, he proves himself to be one of the few of his genre today who can actually sing rather than sigh.
Though Vernon layers his vocal tracks heavily to lend girth to his wail, he manages to avoid the overproduction and abrasiveness that usually results from doing so. Opener “Flume” gathers his many voices around a single microphone, wrapping a gentle melody around a weeping slide guitar; it’s the perfect invitation into Vernon’s isolation. “The Wolves (Act I and II)” plays like an ethereal chorus materialized from the Wisconsin winter frost, cautioning, “Someday my pain/ Will mark you.” Nearly a capella, the song’s powerful verses are complemented by sparse, sympathetic guitar strums and delicate vocal tweaks, getting the use of vocal pitch-bending and layering right the way that Imogen Heap gets it all wrong. Such an ambiance is at once frightening and beautiful, with a mounting chant of “What might have been lost” collapsing inside itself before disappearing into the frozen tundra from which it emerged.
Not an entirely self-indulgent project, however, Bon Iver benefits from the sounds of other musicians. Drums and vocals courtesy of Nola’s Christy Smith lend “Flume” its warmth, and a languid horn section on “For Emma” turn what would’ve been a forgettable confessional tune into a glorious elegy that evokes — dare I say it? — Neutral Milk Hotel. A wise choice on Vernon’s part, it is precisely the addition of others that reinforces his solitude and adds to what keeps him from blending into the recent upsurge of introspective indie folk.
“Skinny Love” is the one track to divert from For Emma’s nostalgia and resignation, a final plea to save a relationship burning at both ends. Sung with soul and ferocity that channels TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, it is arguably one of the record’s standout tracks, teasing the listener with a passion and immediacy we can only hope to hear more of on Bon Iver’s future works.
Vernon’s ability to create sounds that can be felt but not described has produced a work that is both alien and deeply familiar upon first listen, exorcising the ghosts of a love that never quite left you. But what is so remarkable about For Emma, Forever Ago is perhaps best captured in Vernon’s own words: “This is not the sound of a new man/ Or crispy realization/ It’s the sound of the unlocking/ And the lift away.”