Pronounced “bohn eevair; French for “good winter” and spelled wrong deliberately. This debut is centered around a particular aesthetic; Justin Vernon, the primary force behind Bon Iver, moved to a remote cabin in the woods of Northwestern Wisconsin at the onset of winter, alone for three months. This solitary time fed a bold, uninhibited new musical focus. All his personal trouble, lack of perspective, heartache, longing, love, loss, and guilt that had been stockpiled over the past six years was suddenly purged into song. The NY Times called this record “irresistible”, and it was given a “Recommeded” rating by Pitchfork. RIYL: Iron & Wine, M. Ward, and Elliott Smith.
The album that started it all for Bon Iver. This debut is centered around a particular aesthetic; Justin Vernon, the primary force behind Bon Iver, moved to a remote cabin in the woods of Northwestern Wisconsin at the onset of winter, alone for three months. This solitary time fed a bold, uninhibited new musical focus. All his personal trouble, lack of perspective, heartache, longing, love, loss, and guilt that had been stockpiled over the past six years was suddenly purged into song.
The biographical details behind the creation of an album shouldn’t matter when it comes to a listener’s enjoyment, but For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon’s debut as Bon Iver, exudes such a strong sense of loneliness and remoteness that you might infer some tragedy behind it. So, to skirt the rumor mill, here are the particulars, as much or as little as they might apply: In 2005, Vernon’s former band DeYarmond Edison moved from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to North Carolina. As the band developed and matured in its new home, the members’ artistic interests diverged and eventually the group disbanded. While his bandmates formed Megafaun, Vernon– who had worked with the Rosebuds and Ticonderoga– returned to Wisconsin, where he sequestered himself in a remote cabin for four snowy months. During that time, he wrote and recorded most of the songs that would eventually become For Emma, Forever Ago.
As the second half of its title implies, the album is a ruminative collection of songs full of natural imagery and acoustic strums– the sound of a man left alone with his memories and a guitar. Bon Iver will likely bear comparisons to Iron & Wine for its quiet folk and hushed intimacy, but in fact, Vernon, adopting a falsetto that is worlds away from his work with DeYarmond Edison, sounds more like TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, not just in his vocal timbre, but in the way his voice grows grainier as it gets louder.
Vernon gives a soulful performance full of intuitive swells and fades, his phrasing and pronunciation making his voice as much a purely sonic instrument as his guitar. In the discursive coda of “Creature Fear” he whittles the song down to a single repeated syllable– “fa.” Rarely does folk– indie or otherwise– give so much over to ambience: Quivering guitar strings, mic’ed closely, lend opener “Flume” its eerily interiorized sound, which matches his unsettling similes. “Lump Sum” begins with a choir of Vernons echoing cavernously, which, along with that rhythmically rushing guitar, initiates the listener into the song’s strange space.
Two of the album’s slinkiest and best tracks have Turner sounding slyly wolfish, like a perplexed predator confusing lust and longing. “I dreamt about you nearly every night this week,” he purrs on opener “Do I Wanna Know?”, which slowly rolls forward thanks to guitarist Jamie Cook’s lizard-brain riff and drummer Matt Helders’ Queen-sized beat; “Knee Socks”, meanwhile, tells of a wintertime tryst that climaxes with an operatic guest vocal from Queens of the Stone Age‘s Josh Homme, who could’ve used some of AM‘s groove on this year’s lumbering … Like Clockwork. Whereas 2009’s Homme-produced Humbug had the Arctic Monkeys trying on QOTSA’s heaviness with varied success, AM integrates its influences more fully– and, at times, even beats Homme at his own snake-rock game.
The only solace found on this paranoid and haunted album is within its eclectic music, as well as the idea of music itself. “Mad Sounds” is AM‘s most hopeful song, an achingly sincere ballad that employs melody, swing, and “oh la la las” to attest to the power of melody, swing, and “oh la la las.” It teases out the purest interpretation of the Rorschach-like sine waves that adorn AM‘s cover, which– depending on your vantage, or mood– could also read as leering sunglasses or maybe a bikini top. Creeping closer “I Wanna Be Yours” combines all three meanings while seemingly answering the question posed by opener “Do I Wanna Know?” That is: When faced with the choice between easy pleasures and lasting devotion, Turner is picking the latter. Sweet, right? But upon further inspection, it’s not so simple. “I Wanna Be Yours” features lyrics by UK punk poet John Cooper Clarke from his 1982 track of the same name, which uses the language of commercialism to express the deepest love. “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner, breathing in your dust,” sings Turner as a lonely drum machine highlights the sentiment’s emptiness. Still, the song doesn’t sound cynical. It’s genuinely affecting. The ultimate message– will future generations have the capacity to love people as much as their cars, their coffee pots, their phones?– rings terrifyingly true in our time of personal branding. Arctic Monkeys let these thoughts languish. “Maybe I just wanna be yours,” Turner sings. Maybe not.
- Lump Sum
- Skinny Love
- The Wolves (Act I and II)
- Creature Fear
- For Emma
- re: stacks