I was a little late to the Bon Iver party. While everyone was raving and ranting, I was busy listening to other things. When For Emma, Forever Ago began appearing on the "best of the year" lists for 2008, I started to take notice. When Daytrotter trotted out an excellent few recordings, and a very interesting and enjoyable article to boot, I decided it was time to listen.
Unfortunately, I shared an office with someone who's musical tastes didn't exactly mirror mine. And since Bon Iver were not American Idol finalists, the first strains of the Daytrotter session that I began playing one day were met with fierce disapproval. Rather than try to listen through the haze of discontented slurs, shouts, and verbal dismissals, I bowed out. And then I went down to my local record store (I love you, LUNA!) and bought For Emma, Forever Ago. If this many people loved it... well, it didn't have to be good. The people are sometimes very, very wrong (I am looking at you, Rolling Stone magazine, and you, American Idol viewers and listeners).
But sometimes, the masses are right. Granted, most of the "masses" that I was listening to for recommendations are places like Heather and her Fuel for Friends blog, and Aquarium Drunkard, and of course Daytrotter. These are valued and reputable sources for good music, at least so aligned with my tastes. And in this case, my trusty sources lead me not astray. Bon Iver is the real deal, and For Emma, Forever Ago is by far one of the best releases of 2008.
My first listen, in my car, left me intrigued. Not yet impressed or excited, but very intrigued. It wasn't until I got home, put the record on a shelf, and returned to it. It might have been a cold, rainy day, and if it wasn't, it should've been. When I put the disc in my home stereo and hit play, that was when the record grabbed me. It hasn't let go since.
When that first rising crest of harmonized vocals in "The Wolves" hit, I was hooked. From the opening strums of "Flume" to the acoustic guitar fading out on album closer "Re: Stacks," For Emma, Forever Ago is a classic album. The album cover, with its wintery, dirty window look, is a perfect picture of what's inside, of the haunting melodies and found sounds and gentle acoustic strums that will soon grace your ears. Hipsters might call this Indie-Folk. I just call it great.
"Flume" begins the record with that gentle acoustic, along with slight keyboard flourishes and a strange, warbling sound that sounds like a stringed instrument being manipulated with a magnet. And of course, that voice, familiar and haunting, quiet and whispery and passionate. All manner of aural treats make this record a pleasure to listen to, be it buzzing strings or gorgeous and fresh-sounding vocal harmonies. It is a very organic record.
There are many twists and turns throughout the album, like the buzzing instrumental break in "Flume" or the lilting voices and volume swells in "Lump Sum." It's full of organic sounds. It is a folk record through and through, but something more new than old. It borrows from the rich folk lineage of American song, but not the songs themselves, as is so common with folk releases. Here are new tales of love and the cold and the Midwest. "And I told you to be patient, and I told you to be fine, and I told you to be balanced, and I told you to be kind," sings Justin Vernon (who is Bon Iver de facto) in "Skinny Love." "Who will love you, who will fight?" Is he singing to a lover who jilted him, or is he singing to himself? Doesn't matter, because it is affecting and effective either way.
I wish I could highlight a favorite track for you, dear readers, but I can't. I can't because every track seems to be my favorite - I feel like a kid in an aural candy store. Or an addict, and Bon Iver is my dealer of sweet nothings and electric highs. I wonder along with Mr. Vernon as he sings "What might have been lost?"
Who knows, really. All I know is that I am glad Justin Vernon retreated to cabin in Wisconsin to write and record this gritty collection of songs. Bon Iver - a mispelling in French of the term "good winter" - weaves tale after tale, in dulcet and majestic acoustic tones. The hushed vocals of "Blindsided" make is sound as if we're hearing a fairy tale, just one on one, in a room with the storyteller. The soft drums, chirping guitar, and drifting vocals are deceptive in "Creature Fear," as the chorus explodes (for this record, anyway) in a swell of chugging guitars and driving snare. There's even a hint of fuzzy electric guitar and bass in there to drive things along as the song segues into the track "Team."
For Emma, Forever Ago stays mostly quiet and reserved, it's nine songs much like a journey, like a walk outside to clear your head on a cool and crisp winter day, the cold biting at the tip of your nose, but your thoughts warm and comforting in your head. Other times, the music sounds like the perfect companion to brandy and a fireplace. Even when, in "For Emma," Justin sings "go find another lover to bring up, to string along," there's a warmth and joy built into the music. The horns accompanying "For Emma" remind me a little of "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea" by Neutral Milk Hotel, and the comparison isn't a bad one - if you like Neutral Milk Hotel, you'll find some common ground here as well.
"Re: Stacks" might be one of the most straightforward songs on the album, but is also one of the best, a strong, vibrant piece of songwriting that breathes with energy and emotion, even as it is relaxed and reserved. It pleasantly reminds me of walking down cold Columbus, Ohio streets in winter, hand in hand with my lover, watching the world unfurl around us.
And I could say that for the whole record - it's like a cold walk with a loved on, or a warm fireplace by yourself, wondering why you are alone but not really worried how. It is a record of reflection and remembering. It is also a record worth owning, and listening to, over and over. After listening to it almost every day for the past two weeks, and a bit before that, too, I can tell you it's a record that reveals itself slowly, and only gets better the more your listen to it.
This isn't a record for your winter (or summer) of discontent. It's a warm, soulful record for walks and drives, for rainy days at home, for your own reflection. See yourself in For Emma, Forever Ago, and go and see the world through the eyes of a dirty, wintery window. It's about life and living it, and this makes for part of an excellent soundtrack to that great journey.