Bon Iver's hermit indie-folk (story goes Justin Vernon recorded the album on his own during time spent secluded in the woods) delivers the kind of spare intimacy that only a home-recorded solo album can. For Emma, Forever Ago sounds a bit desolate, admittedly lonely, an enigmatic one-way communication. But, it's awfully beautiful. Vernon's disarming falsetto which sounds like Christopher Cross crossed with Antony Hegarty, oddball tape loops, distorted synthesizers, and nods to modern R&B ("Blindsided") create nuance in otherwise straightforward songs. "Creature Fear" showcases Vernon's imaginative songwriting--take the robust chorus that boldly appears seemingly out of nowhere and later, "For Emma" swells bolstered by a soaring slide-guitar, recalling the best of Calexico. To my ears, Bon Iver's music is nearly an homage to great `70s AM-radio singer-songwriter staples like Seals & Crofts or America, just without the promise of ever whiling away a carefree afternoon driving a sun-drenched highway or sailing off into the sunset. --Gabi Knight
Review by Tim Sendra
Bon Iver is the work of Justin Vernon. He isolated himself in a remote cabin in Wisconsin for almost four months, writing and recording the songs on For Emma, Forever Ago, his haunting debut album. A few parts (horns, drums, and backing vocals) were added in a North Carolina studio, but for the majority of the time it's just Vernon, his utterly disarming voice, and his enchanting songs. The voice is the first thing you notice. Vernon's falsetto soars like a hawk and when he adds harmonies and massed backing vocals, it can truly be breathtaking. "The Wolves (Acts I & II)" truly shows what Vernon can do as he croons, swoops, and cajoles his way through an erratic and enchanting melody like Marvin Gaye after a couple trips to the backyard still. "Skinny Love" shows his more of his range as he climbs down from the heights of falsetto and shouts out the angry and heartachey words quite convincingly. Framing his voice are suitably subdued arrangements built around acoustic guitars and filled out with subtle electric guitars, the occasional light drums, and slide guitar. Vernon has a steady grasp of dynamics too; the ebb and flow of "Creature Fear" is powerfully dramatic when the chorus hits it hard not to be swept away by the flood of tattered emotion. Almost every song has a moment where the emotion peaks and hearts begin to weaken and bend: the beauty of that voice is what pulls you through every time. For Emma captures the sound of broken and quiet isolation, wraps it in a beautiful package, and delivers it to your door with a beating, bruised heart. It's quite an achievement for a debut and the promise of greatness in the future is high. Oh, and because you have to mention it, Iron & Wine. Also, Little Wings. Most of all, though, Bon Iver.
For Emma, Forever Ago
The biographical details behind the creation of an album shouldn't matter when it comes to a listener's enjoyment, but For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon's debut as Bon Iver, exudes such a strong sense of loneliness and remoteness that you might infer some tragedy behind it. So, to skirt the rumor mill, here are the particulars, as much or as little as they might apply: In 2005, Vernon's former band DeYarmond Edison moved from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to North Carolina. As the band developed and matured in its new home, the members' artistic interests diverged and eventually the group disbanded. While his bandmates formed Megafaun, Vernon-- who had worked with the Rosebuds and Ticonderoga-- returned to Wisconsin, where he sequestered himself in a remote cabin for four snowy months. During that time, he wrote and recorded most of the songs that would eventually become For Emma, Forever Ago.
As the second half of its title implies, the album is a ruminative collection of songs full of natural imagery and acoustic strums-- the sound of a man left alone with his memories and a guitar. Bon Iver will likely bear comparisons to Iron & Wine for its quiet folk and hushed intimacy, but in fact, Vernon, adopting a falsetto that is worlds away from his work with DeYarmond Edison, sounds more like TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, not just in his vocal timbre, but in the way his voice grows grainier as it gets louder.
Vernon gives a soulful performance full of intuitive swells and fades, his phrasing and pronunciation making his voice as much a purely sonic instrument as his guitar. In the discursive coda of "Creature Fear" he whittles the song down to a single repeated syllable-- "fa." Rarely does folk-- indie or otherwise-- give so much over to ambience: Quivering guitar strings, mic'ed closely, lend opener "Flume" its eerily interiorized sound, which matches his unsettling similes. "Lump Sum" begins with a choir of Vernons echoing cavernously, which, along with that rhythmically rushing guitar, initiates the listener into the song's strange space.
For Emma isn't a wholly ascetic project, though. A few songs benefit from additional recording and input after Vernon's initial sessions: Christy Smith of Raleigh's Nola adds flute and drums to "Flume", and Boston-based musicians John DeHaven and Randy Pingrey add horns to "For Emma"; surprisingly, their company doesn't break the album's spell of isolation, but rather strengthens it, as if they're only his imaginary friends. Vernon turns the cabin's limitations into assets on "The Wolves", layering his falsetto, tweaking his vocal tones to simple yet devastating effect, and piling on clattering percussion to create a calamitous finale.
That passage contrasts nicely with the simple intro to the next track, "Blindsided", which builds from a single repeating note into a halting chorus melody that sells his skewed Walden imagery: "I crouch like a crow/ Contrasting the snow/ For the agony, I'd rather know." Vernon's lyrics are puzzle pieces that combine uneasily; his nouns tend to be concrete, yet the meanings slippery. On "Flume", the lines "I am my mother's only one/ It's enough" form a strong opener, but the song grows less and less lucid: "Only love is all maroon/ Lapping lakes like leery loons/ Leaving rope burns-- reddish ruse." It's as if he's trying to inhabit the in-between spaces separating musical expression and private rumination, exposing his regrets without relinquishing them. His emotional exorcism proves even more intense for being so tentative.
-Stephen M. Deusner, October 04, 2007