Sometimes, an album’s back story is almost as intriguing as the music which is held within. Take Justin Vernon for instance, or Bon Iver as he rechristened himself after mishearing a greeting on cult TV show Northern Exposure.
A couple of years ago, Vernon broke up his band DeYarmond Edison, split up with his girlfriend and retreated to his father’s remote log cabin in Wisconsin for three months. There, in a state of complete solitude, he recorded For Emma, Forever Ago.
As you may have guessed with a story like that, the resulting set of songs are some of the saddest, most beautiful songs you’ll hear all year, aching with wistful regret, quiet anger and fragile resignation.
The lo-fi nature of the recording hasn’t adversely affected the quality of the album – indeed, the slightly muffled vocals on some tracks lend the album a suitably defeated, heartbroken atmosphere. There’ll be occasions where you struggle to hear what Vernon is singing, but you’re left in no doubt as to what he’s conveying – this is the sound of an emotionally beaten man, at the end of his tether.
At times, Vernon’s voice recalls that of Antony, or the brittle fragility of Iron And Wine‘s Sam Bean. Sometimes, as on Blindsided, the mix of whispered vocals and gentle acoustic guitar recalls José González. Even the brief appearance of an unlikely vocoder on The Wolves Act I And II fails to spoil the tranquil, serene air.
Lyrically, Vernon is revealed as something of a poet. These are words that are destined to be poured over and analysed – Flume seems to be about the unconditional love of a mother, only described quite brilliantly by imagery and alliteration (“only love is all maroon, lapping lakes like leery loons”), while the heartbreakingly sad Skinny Love describes the decaying of a relationship, before berating his former partner with a plaintive cry of “who will love you? Who will fight?”.
Although the general air is that of resignation and regret, there’s anger here too – The Wolves has the haunting refrain of “someday my pain will mark you”, while the title track sees Vernon singing to his former paramour to “go find another lover…to string along”.
Most impressively, none of this is remotely depressing. The brass section on For Emma is inspired, letting in some much needed light and optimism, while the closing Re:Stacks is the sound of a man who’s come through hell before proudly blinking against the light when he emerges from the other side – as the last verse puts it: “this is not the sound of a new man or crispy realisation, it’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away, your love will be safe with me”.
It’s rare to be so gushing about a debut album – yet after living with this album for a few weeks, you’ll be hard pressed to find any flaws. It’s sad to think that Vernon’s heart was completely torn in half in order to make this record, but thank God it was – for this is a surefire contender for album of the year.