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Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

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Artist: Bon Iver

Album: For Emma, Forever Ago

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: Feb. 18, 2008

It helps to have a hook and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has got himself a good one. For three months last winter the Eau Claire native and ex-member of DeYarmond Edison retired to a cabin in Northern Wisconsin to record For Emma, Forever Ago when he wasn’t chopping wood and working on keeping warm. The following autumn, Vernon brought his songs to the CMJ festival in New York and proceeded to bowl over a coterie of bloggers and music journalists. The buzz may have something to do with the idealization of a soul-searching hermit by a faction that’s wobbly on snowshoes, but Bon Iver’s songs earn their praise; the best of them––“Skinny Love,” “Re: Stacks”––are achingly pretty.

Vernon’s voice is the showpiece here––a fragile, technically imperfect falsetto, he multi-tracks it into a shimmering, heat-giving force on each of the record’s nine songs. As an instrument, it’s grittier and less sustained than the high-octave singing of someone like Death Vessel’s Joel Thibodeau, but at the same time less flighty and theatrical than the warble of Devendra Banhart. It’s not that it’s hard to find comparisons––indie folk has gone weirdly castrati in recent years. Rather, what’s unique about Bon Iver is the way that Vernon employs his voice, or voices, in amalgam.

There’s a coarse grain to many of these vocal performances that moves at cross-purposes to the more crystalline register they’re tracked against. The result is a mix of audible emotions––loneliness, wonder, nostalgia, and bitterness––that course concurrently, eddying into cryptic lyrics about teasing blouses and spitting mouths, cross-legged crows and leery loons. Sometimes the effect is radiantly abstract, as on “Lump Sum,” which opens with an airy chorus of moans and croons that waft like pungent smoke. Other times it’s shatteringly direct, as on “Skinny Love”––the knockout track of the bunch––which throbs so painfully that you feel faintly voyeuristic listening, as though some things might be better left to the trees.

To accompany his falsetto, Vernon employs a stripped-down but versatile palate of instrumentation; acoustic guitar and banjo provide much of the scaffolding, though muted horns and organic percussion get impromptu airings. The leadoff track “Flume” features raw, molar-rattling strings over simple strummed chords, all of it whimpering out partway in a kind of scattered acoustic breakdown. The obverse occurs on “The Wolves (Act I and II),” which swells with what sounds like crashing pans, braided together with chiming strings and languid horns.

There are a number of these diffuse moments sprinkled throughout For Emma, reminiscent of Califone in their rootsy abstraction. Certain elements are unwelcome––the clipped, tempo-stuttering electronic sound on “Blindsided” and the out-front horns on “For Emma” both disrupt the solitary, backwoods vibe. To a larger degree, however, Vernon’s arrangements are intriguingly complex. In places, you almost want more from them––when the minimal percussion kicks in on “Skinny Love,” there seems room enough for a lot more thump. Three months in a cabin managed to birth some haunting songs. Going forward, I’ll be just as eager to hear what Vernon can generate by camping out in the studio.

By Nathan Hogan

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