Bon Iver- For Emma, Forever Ago

Quality: 5

Clean: 3

Genre: art-folk, indie

I’m a bit late. For Emma, Forever Ago, was released last year, February 2008. Not to mention that last week Bon Iver released a new EP, Blood Bank. But after hearing NPR’s unabashed applause for Emma, I decided I couldn’t skip it just to be with the times.

Bon Iver is pronounced Bon EEvar, French-ish for “good winter.”  Not just a pseudonym for Justin Vernon, the vocalist and composer of the songs, the name is also for the band and for the spirit of the album. “It’s more of a sentiment that I’m trying to attach to what we do musically, as a group and as a project,” he says. “That sentiment being one of, I don’t know, geographical reference. And us being from where we come from, I think that’s who we are. And we are who we are because of where we come from.”

Holed up in a northern Wisconsin cabin in the dead of winter, Justin Vernon wrote the collective of songs in a two month period . There, he confronted his demons. He says: “everyone kind of builds up negative energy in their life, and for me, it just built up a little too long. And I think I went up there to really fix myself. That’s what it was kind of about for me.”

For Emma, is beautifully produced with warm instrumentals. Acoustic guitar is central, but there are highlights of base and electric guitar, snare drum, whistling, brass and others. Unlike so many other indie artists, the instruments aren’t there just because, but they add to the story of each song, producing their own perfectly crafted artistic affect. Justin’s voice is another instrument, sung in falsetto, it communicates an other-worldly and choir-like feeling. One song, Wolves, surprisingly uses Auto-tune, however it doesn’t sound out of place or pretentious on this organic album. Instead, the emptiness of the computer-generated voice perfectly emphasizes the lifeless love sung  about.

The album is minimal and stark. Somehow though, after listening to it over and over, I am not dragged down into hopeless despair. The music is cathartic, as if listening to it I have worked out some of my own issues. NPR’s article expressed of Skinny Love perfectly what I was thinking of the entire project: “But as dark as it gets, the song, with its unforgettable steel-guitar hook, is too gorgeous to function as a true downer.” Written in winter, the album embodies the season by capturing the mood of foggy skies and desolate snow-scapes.

How else can I describe the sound of Bon Iver? There are elements of Arcade Fire, Cold Play, Smashing Pumpkins, Antony & the Johnsons, and James Taylor, but, Bon Iver is something all its own. Listen to him yourself and see.

For a Clean rating, I give the album a 3. Most of the time I can’t understand the words, or I catch a few here and there but not an entire song. If I look up the words on some lyrics website, I find that they are quite sad. Skinny Love, sounds like a suicide letter. Other songs are vague, about land, loss, cold. Good poetry, for sure. The music is what carries this album, and its ok that the words are unclear. Similar to Son Lux, the words are the accompaniment, not the star.

Listen to Flume on NPR’s media player. Scroll down to the bottom of the article. The first song is Flume. Click on “Listen.” The media player will pop up in a separate window and will begin to play.

Links: boniver.org, NPR’s interview

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