Critical Voices: Bon Iver

February 14, 2008

Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago, Jagjaguwar

There are some albums that would have been impossible without just the right recording environment. Example: Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers), which owes much of its grit to the grimy gutters of Staten Island where six of the nine Wu Tang Clansmen honed their craft. Likewise, For Emma, Forever Ago, folk artist Justin Vernon’s debut as Bon Iver, owes its gorgeously sylvan vibe to the hibernating Wisconsin woods where Vernon wrote and recorded most of these songs.

But For Emma also documents an artist wielding and transforming his recording environment, proving that the influence can flow both ways. The album is about space just as much as it seeks to trap and make surrounding space its own, to imbue itself with the personality that exists between notes. Vernon’s closely mic’ed vocals and shivering guitar strings fill the void of the dilapidated cabin where he wrote and recorded most of these songs; the bare woods and scattered wildlife of northwestern Wisconsin inform each of his weather-worn, organic passages and creep into Vernon’s stories. Yet his lyrical references to nature and to real people in his “civilized” life often intertwine, blurring the boundary between his temporary seclusion in the woods and his other life integrated with society—raising For Emma several notches above your typical singer-songwriter venture, and earning it a spot among the best folk records 2007 had to offer.

Yes, For Emma came out last year, but until now the initially self-distributed album was nearly impossible to find. Jagjaguwar’s reissue provides Vernon’s adoring masses with their first real opportunity to nab a copy of their own. And it’s a good thing, too: For Emma is the most successful marriage of stripped-to-the-bone acoustic folk and Mother-Nature-inspired ambience since the Microphones’ magnum opus The Glow, Pt. 2.

Voice’s Choices: “Flume,” “For Emma,” “Skinny Love”

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