Music Reviews
For Emma, Forever Ago

Bon Iver For Emma, Forever Ago

(Jagjaguwar) Rating - 9/10

People are at their most interesting when they are alone. There is something about isolation that makes human beings shy away into their own minds, forget that they exist, and it is in this special, private habitat that they can be honestly, completely, themselves. Time flies in a place like this, entire conversations are to be held with nothing but the thin air surrounding you. Creativity reaches its peak, embarrassment seems non-existent.

This kind of free-spirited integrity is rare in contemporary art, even though most artists work hard to make you believe they’ve achieved it. It’s usually a lie. Real integrity is uncompromising, shameless, uncomfortable and mesmerizing. Descriptions all which can be applied to For Emma, Forever Ago, the debut offering from Bon Iver (real name: Justin Vernon). It reminded me of James Cameron Mitchell’s brilliant movie Shortbus, which is just as off-putting, wilful and (sometimes) painful to observe. The songs were written and recorded in a desolate cabin during a merciless winter in Wisconsin and they are, without question, the best representation of all the things that make isolation beautiful in its own right. These songs are raw, bold and slightly uncomfortable, but at the same time authentic and therefore extremely special, like the offspring of creativity and isolation at their most fruitful.

Although For Emma, Forever Ago works best as a concise listen, as each song segues naturally into the next, tracks like Blindsided and For Emma quickly rise as shining standouts. Furthermore, the album’s haunting centrepiece, The Wolves (Act I and II), is an unassuming masterstroke. After the subtle, silent first act, the song explodes into a dense back half as Vernon piles layers and layers of his guitar and bold falsetto upon each other - to mindblowing effect. That song is also a true testament of this record’s magic: while there are hints of brass and string here and there, most of this record is just Vernon with his guitar. On paper, this may sound generic and boring, but in practice it sounds unlike anything out there.

“It wasn’t planned, the goal was to hibernate,” writes Vernon in his biography. It shows. The spontaneity exhaled by these songs is what makes them so striking and surprising. There is a certain restlessness in these songs, fuelled by the solitude in which they were conjured. Like the sudden half-way shift in Blindsided implies, For Emma, Forever Ago is composed in a playful and off-centre way, again made possible by Vernon’s isolation. If there would’ve been someone else in the room while these songs were in production, they would be different. More controlled, more polite and as a result: not nearly as divine.