For Emma, Forever Ago


Band: Bon Iver
Album: For Emma, Forever Ago
Best song: “Skinny Love,” “For Emma” and “Re: Stacks” are the album highlights.
Worst song: “The Wolves (Act I and II)” is ambitious, but, ultimately falls short.

For Emma, Forever Ago was recorded and self-released in 2007 originally, but it saw (sorta) wide release in 2008, so, let’s include it in my 2008 retrospective month (aka “January 2009”).

As anyone with a computer knows, Bon Iver is the work of former Mount Vernon member Justin Vernon, the state of Wisconsin, a cabin and, presumably, a fair amount of introspection. He spent three months in a cabin in the Northern part of that state, essentially alone with his recording equipment and his own mind. All the record was written and recorded during this time and in this way, with tape hiss, hand claps and all evident in the recording.

The record has been praised for its intimacy and the recording style is certainly to blame for that. Indeed, the album is mostly Vernon and his guitar, though “Flume” features Nola’s Christy Smith on drums and “For Emma” features a trumpet. His falsetto is interesting, though not overused and his normal whisper vocal is stronger than most of his ilk. He’s not an intricate guitar player on the level of Elliott Smith, but he’s not the mediocre strummer that Mark Kozelek tends to be.

Melodically, the album isn’t a revelation, but Vernon does what he needs to. On “Creature Fear,” Vernon’s cooing of monosyllabic onomatopoetic “fa” make for a pleasant listen. Lyrically, the album is sparse and full of workable metaphors evident of his recording environment. Again, the record was recorded last winter and winter in Wisconsin ain’t bright. It’s grey. Grey grey grey grey grey. So, on album-ender “Re: Stacks,” Vernon’s voice is fluid when he intones “I’ve twisting to the sun I needed to replace/The fountain in the front yard is rusted out/All my love was down/In a frozen ground.” The forlorn “For Emma” is a full-band treatment that shows off Vernon’s abilities. An easy guitar bit is repetitive, but catchy and Vernon’s single-tracked vocal line sounds full and evocative. Really, the combination of Vernon’s voice and his unchallenging lyrics is wonderful.

As such, the album’s highlight, “Skinny Love,” Vernon is able to make an easy checklist into desperation

I told you to be patient
I told you to be fine
I told you to be balanced
I told you to be kind

The song’s desperation is showed in Vernon’s double-tracked vocals on the song. The record’s fullness is astounding, considering the low fidelity of its work and the composition of it.

The singer-songwriter thing is, no doubt, frustrating and overdone. And, to be honest, For Emma, Forever Ago has been a little overpraised by just about anyone with a keyboard and broadband. Indeed, I’m reminded of the first Iron & Wine record. Without an experience to tie to the album — these type of records soundtrack breakups, graduations, etc. better than, say, the Fleet Foxes record — I’m sort of left as just pleasantly surprised. It’s a nice record in an genre that is one in which it is nearly impossible to succeed without better context.

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