Mar 21, 2008, 05:21AM

ALBUM REVIEW: Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago

Justin Vernon went into the woods to recover from a breakup, and in the process he created a modern masterpiece.

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Aaron Landry

Alhough I’m inclined to romanticize the biographical contexts of my favorite music and literature, I don’t fully believe an artist’s life should inform a critical analysis of their work. The ghostly beauty of Pink Moon is not augmented in any productive way by acknowledging Nick Drake’s crippling depression or subsequent suicide; I think that Pink Moon is hopeful. It’s generally been only the basic truths of the document that I am inclined to critique—nothing more, nothing less.  

I only offer this thesis because I’ve discovered a remarkably strong antithesis: Bon Iver’s debut on Jagjaguwar Records, For Emma, Forever Ago. Justin Vernon (the wraithlike voice of Bon Iver) recorded For Emma, Forever Ago alone in the frozen woods of Wisconsin, wearing the wounds of a disintegrated prolonged romance, and this context, this desperate voice sounding in the middle of an empty forest, seems to be the heart of the matter.

For Emma, Forever Ago is difficult to accurately describe. I’ve listened to it almost exclusively, and appropriately, throughout this past winter, scratching my own scars and acclimating myself to a new city, and so it seems I should have a precise handle on it. I don’t, although I do know that it plays something like a distillation of broken love: there are moments of inexplicable hope shrouded in sadness; there are moments of hysterical, insensible melancholy, presumably understood as perfectly rationale reflections on heartache; there are peaks and valleys, highs and lows, momentum and regression. It is, again, a remarkable account of one voice, isolate, incapable of reconciling growth and regret, hope and desperation, wherein Vernon can offer such inscrutable fever dreams such as “Only love is all maroon/gluey feathers on a plume/sky is womb and she’s the moon,” or, “Come on skinny love what happened here/suckle on the hope in light brassiere… /sullen load is full, so slow on the spit,” and simultaneously deliver them in such an assertive and declarative manner that they seem the most basic and logical articulations of mournful longing imaginable. It’s the kind of tenuous, obscure clarity that I’m sure every grieving, healing lover has felt.

Stated simply, For Emma, Forever Ago is beautiful. Really, truly beautiful. It’s essentially a solo affair, largely just Vernon’s haunting, tremendous falsetto and a cabin-full of scratchy, ancient guitars. Again, though, there exists an indescribable component that seems, in my mind, critical to the record’s success. Perhaps the best I can do is to simply implore a reader to listen to “re:Stacks,” For Emma’s closing track. It is the album’s strongest song, and the most demonstrative example of interplay between seemingly incongruous elements. Lyrically, it is a hymn of quiet regret and submission: “This my excavation and today is Kumran/everything that happens from now on/this is pouring rain/this is paralyzed.” Yet musically, there exists a breathtakingly sense of hope. “re:Stacks” is unquestionably one of the most perfect, stunning, quietly moving songs that I have ever heard, and the intensely personal nature of it’s documentation—the fact that it is nearly impossible to extract an understanding of Vernon’s personal battle—only enhances it. The struggle documented by For Emma—an inarguably universal struggle—is consistent with and dependent upon the environment in which it was created: alone, in the middle of the frozen wilderness, howling up into the night sky.

I’ve spent the better part of the last decade relentlessly searching for perfect records to accompany Blood On The Tracks, Closing Time, Pink Moon, Veedon Fleece, In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, I See A Darkness, or The Creek Drank the Cradle in the makeshift-schema of what I consider to be contemporary folk masterpieces. Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago is now on that list.


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