Bon Iver

For Emma, Forever Ago

(Self-released; 2007)

By Traviss Cassidy | 2 February 2008

Some singer-songwriters have that Presence. Example: it addles and transforms the smoky, bar-room din and nuzzles into every corner and crevice of the venue. If the music hasn't already started then now it exists, enveloping everything around it -- the grumbling bouncer, the empty, clinking glasses, the cigarette buds dotting the floor. Maybe the atmosphere is cliché but it's positively charged; such artists don't play in so much as inhabit the space in which they perform.

Justin Vernon's got that Presence, and his debut as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago, demonstrates the transformative power an artist wields over his environment. It's a record about space just as much as it seeks to trap and make surrounding space its own, to imbue itself with the personality that exists between notes. Vernon's closely mic'ed vocals and shivering guitar strings literally fill the creaking void of the dilapidated cabin where he wrote and recorded most of these songs. The bare woods and scattered wildlife of northwestern Wisconsin inform each of his weather-worn, organic passages, creeping into the stories themselves as Man and Nature's surprisingly facile exchange, raising For Emma several notches above your typical singer-songwriter venture. Vernon's work with former band DeYarmond Edison and his contributions to the Rosebuds and Ticonderoga earned him the respect, if not attention, of indie-folk fans. This should all be insured with Bon Iver, a sure-footed assertion of the artist's individual talents, landing it a spot among the best folk records 2007 has to offer.

Folk music has always enjoyed an intimate--and perhaps intrinsic--connection with nature, though Vernon goes beyond merely exploiting this relationship. His songs, while "natural" in their acoustic leanings and stripped-down production, actually attempt to recreate the ambient drones and crackles redolent of any forested environment: lightly struck harmonics suspend in the air like browning leaves riding a cool fall breeze; strings rattling against the guitar's neck mimic the rustling of naked branches. Even Vernon's Gregorian-like croons contribute to the natural ambience, lending "Lump Sum" an expansive, cavernous feel.

Vernon's acoustic rendering of Mother Earth may inspire comparisons to The Glow, Pt. 2 (2001), though the two albums diverge when it comes to lyrics. Whereas Phil Elvrum's lo-fi suites seemed all ga-ga for Gaea, Vernon incorporates natural features only to augment his own personal experiences. To his credit, Vernon has no difficulty blurring the boundary between his "civilized" life and his new hermetic one. On "Flume," the sparse opener ostensibly about Vernon's mother, he sings, "Only love is all maroon / Gluey feathers on a flume / Sky is womb and she's the moon." His mother isn't the subject of a passing daydream, she's part of the surrounding scenery, her presence constant. On "The Wolves (Act I and II)" Vernon projects his sylvan metaphors onto a conversation with a lover: "With the wild wolves around you / In the morning, I'll call you." The device is nothing revolutionary, sure, but Vernon impresses in his ability to combine these otherwise distinct worlds in his mind and translate them to song without any hint of murkiness.

Critics have rightly compared Vernon's soulful falsetto to that of TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe. But unlike TV on the Radio, Vernon largely forgoes studio treatment (apart from some tastefully multi-tracked vocals), leaving these songs as naked and vulnerable to the elements as the aged cabin in which he wrote them. Only once does technology intrude on nature's party: just before the climax of "The Wolves (Act I and II)" Vernon uses a vocoder to give his voice the Daft Punk treatment, no doubt begging for a knee-locked double-take. The tactic for a moment spoils the song's natural beauty, but it quickly passes. Besides that slight misstep, the rare augmentations to the guitar-and-vocals template of For Emma, Forever Ago tend to reap the most rewards. Album highlight "For Emma" marches along with triumphant horns and a piercing Magnolia Electric Co. (2003) slide guitar, though the focus is still squarely on Vernon's tremulant voice. In the midst of the album's busiest and loudest instrumentation, one thing becomes clear: those pipes command attention. I just hope to God they get the chance to resonate in and take over more living rooms than mine.