Monday, July 21, 2008

Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago (2007/2008 reissue)

Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)

Acoustic log cabin indie soul. I think that might be the best approximation of this highly acclaimed album by Justin Vernon. Vernon has received a lot of publicity for how he recorded this disc. He recorded the album in upstate Wisconsin, conjuring up visions of Ed Gein. However, unlike Ed Gein, who did not like to hunt animals, at least non-human ones, Vernon used his father’s hunting cabin as a studio. Vernon even lived off the land, a la Ted Nugent.

This setting did not spur Vernon to record songs about killing people, boiling their entrails and eating them, and using their skin to make costumes and furniture. Nor did hunting inspire Vernon to record proto-heavy metal rock songs about buffalos and poontang.

Instead, Vernon used his time in isolation to wallow and brood, which is about fuck all that you can do in northern Wisconsin during the winter. Vernon was a veteran of a band or two or three back in North Carolina and knows a thing or two about songwriting. His solitude got him a’thinking. And he started writing extremely expressionistic songs about the woman who dumped him and being dumped.

Expressionistic is the key. At times, these lyrics make as much sense as the early ramblings of Mr. Michael Stipe. Some of them actually look a little silly, in spare sets of two or three lines of typeface set forth on the CD booklet. They manage to make a lot more sense when Vernon sings them in his tender falsetto, accompanied by his acoustic guitar. Not to convey meaning, of course, but to convey feeling.

Perhaps the only misstep that Vernon made on this album was to not record some of these songs with a fire going in the background. Not that these are campfire singalongs. But crackling coming from the hearth would only heighten the intimacy of these recordings. Maybe he thought that would be a tad too obvious.

The pain of rejection radiates throughout, though not all of it is mournful. At times, it’s harrowing, as on “The Wolves (Act I and II)”, which has Vernon creating some skillful harmonies that give the song an old time feel in a manner similar to Fleet Foxes, though the approach is different. The song turns into a somber folk-blues kiss off, Vernon starting of the song by tell his ex that “someday my pain will mark you”

The bitterness is more hidden by the poppiest music on the album on “For Emma”. Reverberating slide guitar lines and horns give this acoustic strum a full sound, the guitar evoking a twinge of sadness, the horns a vaguely hopeful majesty. The song is an imagined dialogue, with a man and woman not connecting on any level. The woman says, “Go find another lover; to bring string along!” and the man replies, “with all your lies, you’re still loveable.” Ouch. On this song, Vernon creates a mood that is akin to Midlake, though the sound is not as polished or stately.

Other songs just evince confusion and bewilderment (the title “Blindsided” makes it pretty obvious), while Vernon displays the ability to create indelible melodies that don’t leap out immediately because of the intimacy of the recording. And those melodies sometimes have a classic feel -- on “Skinny Love” there are bits that remind me of Adrian Belew’s solo work, and there are other spots where the beauty of Lindsey Buckingham is evident. Another decent comparison might be a more rustic version of Doleful Lions.

The album ends on a real high note with the contemplative “Re: Stacks”, which has an utterly winning chorus. It will be interesting to see if Vernon can follow up an album that came from such a specific place, both geographically and emotionally. He clearly has talent, and we’ll see if the inspiration will be as high.

1 comment:

John Demetry said...

"the beauty of Lindsey Buckingham," indeed. . . for those who dig Liddy's music, this might be of interest:

My Fleetwood Mac blog, Heroes Are Hard To Find is conducting a contest in honor of Lindsey Buckingham's new album, Gift Of Screws (09.16.08). I thought it might be of interest to you or your readers!