Bon Iver – “For Emma, Forever Ago”

It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, in the dead of winter, one man was making such beautiful music. Justin Vernon was suffering from break-ups in his professional and personal life, and a bout of mono, when he moved to his father’s hunting cabin in northern Wisconsin. An Eau Claire native and a musician since the age of 12, Vernon lived off venison and beer for three months while writing and recording one of this year’s most critically acclaimed albums.

Bon Iver is a butchering of the French phrase for “good winter,” and has become Vernon’s musical ID. “For Emma, Forever Ago” is short, with only nine songs, all of which sound like demos with clumsy chords and questionable sound quality. Vernon slurs and mumbles and relies heavily on his falsetto in each song. His lyrics – the majority of which are images and jumbled phrases – are based on nature.

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Beyond that, however, isolation and pain has never sounded so good. Just listening to these songs, you can feel the icy wind on your face and hear the wolves’ lonely howls echoing in the woods around you.

The opening to “Lump Sum” puts you in a cathedral as a chorus serenades you into a blissful music-induced coma. In one of his more coherent and emotional moments, Vernon churns out “Skinny Love” as the most mainstream song here. “The Wolves (Act I and II)” is the epic powerhouse, building to a shaking crescendo as he croons, “Some day my pain will mark you/Harness your blame and walk through/What might have been lost/Don’t bother me.”

Vernon’s closest musical cousins are Iron and Wine and TV on the Radio. When at his quietest and least coherent, he channels Sigur Ros’ mystical language and inflection. Folk rock, acoustic, neo-soul – whatever you want to call it – mostly it’s just beautiful.

If you can, get the iTunes exclusive track “Wisconsin” for an example of some studio-smooth Vernon. At the end of “Re: Stacks,” my favorite song, comes the confession: “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization/It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away/Your love will be safe with me.”

This album is not about Emma, whoever she may be (Vernon never addresses her, or the horrible, beautiful things she did to him forever ago). This album is not fun or angry, loud or catchy; it is cathartic and vital. A weight comes with it, the weight coming off your shoulders and turning into organic resonating sound.

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