For Emma, Forever Ago
Bon Iver (Justin Vernon and whoever else is lucky enough to travel alongside him) have created something extraordinary in For Emma, Forever Ago. Already mythology begins to grow around the enigmatic Vernon and his untrammeled muse. The story behind the album is irresistibly romantic, almost too much so, very Woodstock, Big Pink. See? Whispered stories from all the right mouths about a winter spent in solitude, deep in the woods up North, a cabin with no modern luxuries, endless blankets of snow, no way to pass the time except to chop wood and write songs about lost love. Eventually Vernon emerges from his exile (or reverie?) with a set of songs that would form the bulk of Bon Iver’s debut.
The music of Bon Iver rotates like grateful satellites around the ghostly, honeyed falsetto of Vernon – rich and thrilling, equal parts Neil Young, Rick Danko/Richard Manuel, and Kyp Malone, earthy and soulful yet somehow “not” at the same time. Does that make sense? It’s like the feeling I got when I first heard David Bowie singing soul tunes on Young Americans for the first time, as if the voice was swallowing the material and making it into something very much other. But does that mean the music is some lurking background ambiance? No friend, in many ways it might be the making of the album…
“Flume” starts off like a long, slow swoon – vocals double-tracked, acoustic guitar, and church-like, heavily echoed keyboards (more waves, really, like footsteps in puddles of water) – with the same sense of sonic unity as, say, a My Bloody Valentine number, just a different destination. The genius part comes midway as the guitar strings ring and ring, supported by drips of ghostly synth and alien vocal harmonizing, and the song rushes back to life, somehow even more delicate than before. “Lump Sum” begins life as a heavenly choral number, held aloft by sumptuous massed voices, before crashing down to earth in the form of Vernon’s lonely falsetto and urgent, clipped guitar strumming, trying to reach those peaks again. “Skinny Love” is more wrenching and desperate, with an intensity to the vocals that’s trying to raise some long lost lover from the brittle notes wrenched out of handclaps and a guitar that sounds like it was last used on Merle Haggard’s “Sing a Sad Song.” Toward the end it becomes a back porch lament, those sitting around him letting out spontaneous calls and the rhythmic claps becoming more vigorous.
“The Wolves (Act I and II)” burns with the same communal ecstasy of Appalachian gospel or sacred harp singing, untutored falsettos rising higher and higher as the song builds in intensity like an unplugged Spiritual playing toy instruments until the song ends with octopus-armed drum battering and delirious voices mimicking a guitar refrain. And then the most devout of codas, “Someday my pain.” The call and response vocals, “Did you really rush out?” and “Falling out,” in “Blindsided” give the song a deceptively spry folksy groove. Man, listen to those vocal harmonies effortlessly rise and fall, lazily chasing after instrumentation that is meandering and dazed on the verses and a heavenly dramatique chug on the chorus – reminds me of David Crosby’s solo awesomeness. “For Emma” is an easygoing country rock groove pilfering what sounds like a Television riff with a Calexico swing, accented by horns and cavernous slide guitar – a departure from the rest. “Go find another lover to bring to string along,” mordant lyrics clash with the sunbaked peace of the music. “re: stacks” is so delicate and muted that you daren’t breathe while it plays, for fear that your breath would scatter these sounds like a pattern in the sand.