Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjagwar/4AD, 2007/2008)
Reclusively isolated in a North Wisconsin hunting cabin, Justin Vernon has, with ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, crafted a genuinely beautiful, spare and simple work that is at once vulnerable, mythical and overwhelming. ‘For Emma…’ is an album that has been capturing the hearts and minds of bloggers for some time, having already been released twice in the United States. It’s not officially out in the UK until May, which is a shame given that it was recorded in the heart of winter, and seems far more appropriate for that season than for burgeoning sunshine. Luckily, it’s easily found on import CD, or streaming on various mp3 blogs, for which the Hype Machine website remains an invaluable resource. Vernon is also visiting the UK in the week of the album’s release to play some dates with Iron and Wine – a thoroughly mouth-watering prospect.
Vernon is a master of arrangement and textural variation. Whilst lesser artists would have settled for an elementary rhythmic template of strummed acoustic guitar, Vernon carefully adds layered vocals, murmuring electronics, both natural and processed reverb, and brilliantly orchestrated crescendos to create tension and drama. This helps him avoid many of the pitfalls associated with conventional singer-songwriters. ‘For Emma…’ is a collection of songs that not only restates the core values of song-writing as an art, but also expands them. So, whilst the natural acoustic of the hunting cabin room is frequently audible, imbuing this material with a hushed majesty, there’s also a profound grandeur too. The songs are both devastatingly intimate and appealingly outward-looking.
Accompanying himself with choral-style backing vocals, Vernon creates shifting textures of spectral voices and interjecting motifs. The use of electronic ambience is also remarkably subtle – Vernon somehow manages to integrate it completely with the natural timbre of the songs as they were recorded. Similarly, with the occasional use of percussion or even brass instruments, Vernon carefully constructs slow-burning crescendos that have a resounding impact, enhancing rather than undermining the languid elegance of his craft. The title track, for example, has elements of a marching band, but somehow seems far less earthy and predictable than such a description might suggest. Throughout, the instrumentation is always appreciably controlled – with the sparing rather than predominant involvement of distant drums or electric guitars which murmur rather than cackle.
Whilst there are transparent parallels between Bon Iver and Iron and Wine (the album’s title has notable kinship with Sam Beam’s strange manipulation of syntax), ‘For Emma…’ cannot so easily be connected with an American folk tradition. Sam Beam’s language captures much of the vastness of the American landscape and its literary tradition (indeed, Beam’s more epic moments are closer to Cormac McCarthy than any of his contemporaries). Although he often uses similar devices and vivid imagery, Vernon, frequently singing of love (whether it’s based on experience or not of course doesn’t really matter, but one gets the strong impression that there might well be a real Emma to whom these songs might be dedicated), seems more personal. There’s also a more kinship with drama than with traditional poetry or prose. He often delivers either in a fragile falsetto or an aggravated holler (reminiscent of TV On The Radio) that conjure a distinctly soulful quality. It makes the most straightforward song here, the concluding ‘Re: Stacks’ quietly heartbreaking. In fact, this song in particular reminds me of Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip’s solo material, sadly so far unheard by many.
From its opening line onwards, there’s a real mystery to ‘For Emma…’ that is completely captivating. ‘I am my mother’s only one’, sings Vernon, leaving a pregnant pause before claiming ‘but that’s enough’. It’s a striking way to begin a song, and the enigmatic poignancy is continued throughout, in a way that seems wistful and homespun on one hand, but also odd, otherworldly and spiritual on the other. ‘Re: Stacks’ again is particularly moving in this regard: ‘There’s a black crow sitting across from me, his wiry legs are crossed/He’s dangling my keys, he even fakes a toss/Whatever could it be that has brought me to this loss?’. Yet, somehow, it all ends on a sublime and positive note: ‘This is not the sound of a new man or a crispy realisation/It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away/Your love will be/Safe with me’. Either love has been lost, but the memory lingers securely, or love has been found anew – the precise meaning is unclear.
Vernon has shown deft skill and talent in creating a work that sounds so open and intense, but also leaves questions hanging with intriguing ambiguity. It’s a set of songs to live with and live inside, a record to experience as well as hear.