The concept of a band or musician escaping from the world to create out of desolate or sequestered environments a special resonance isn’t new — just look back a couple of years to Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House for proof of that — but the romantic story’s got something that keeps us coming back. Perhaps we feel, through these works, the yearning to break free from our too-often bound lives.
Bon Iver, the nom de plume of musician Justin Vernon, may have been fighting off those same bindings when he escaped to his father’s cabin in rural Wisconsin, but he’s emerged with a bunch of songs that effectively communicate the fragility of respectability and constraint against an indifferent natural world. The spirit of freedom? Maybe, but it’s something insular, personal; Vernon’s ghosts are his own. In journeying with him on For Emma, Forever Ago (his debut), they become a familiar, fragile presence. They are melancholy and lonely, but with the potential for great hope.
The tools are simple. Like Phosphorescent, Bon Iver favours mostly acoustic arrangements, skeletal recordings on analog equipment, close-recorded. Still, both artists know the power of crescendo, both in timbre and volume. And now and then, when Vernon lets his voice shed the hushed/floating affectation, he has a raw abandon that’s quite compelling. “For Emma” shows us what Bon Iver might have been if he’d gone down the road of a more MOR folk band but the songwriting’s still solid: horns give a touch of colour to the background, Vernon’s voice casually waltzing over a pretty melodic line.
Bon Iver’s songs are weightless, often without time signature. They are driven more by the rhythms of the words than any strong sense of beat. “Blindsided” is a good example; the piece is an intricate layering of vocals, with static lines crossing each other seemingly at random. The thing is block-like but aches palpably. When percussion does appear, it’s either crashing around with thunderous, rolling snares (“The Wolves”) or stomping out a straightforward, martial rhythm (“Team”). At his softest and gentlest he recalls Jose Gonzalez.
“The Wolves (Act I and II)” can’t compete with Phosphorescent’s haunting song of the same name off Pride, but it’s even more skeletal. Wolves, metaphor-wise, suit these artists: the sense of loneliness and danger and urgency. Vernon whoops the line “In the morning I call you” and repeats it until it gains the quality of a mantra. Musically, this is mirrored in the composition’s second act, a rising repetition that spins off into dissonance, electric thunder, and horns. At the end, as if in the aftermath of a tragic attack, the music’s completely cowed. Vernon sings a line that begins “Someday”, but you struggle to hear the rest of the words. He’s completely defeated.
Maybe I was hoping for something huge and heroic, the kind of low-fi, extended masterpiece that could be an obvious album centerpiece. But Bon Iver defiantly makes a small-scale statement on For Emma, Forever Ago, so much that if you don’t concentrate, you’ll pass this over. That would be a mistake. And if he relies just a little too much on the atmosphere and creaking spaces between notes filled by the character of the cabin in which he recorded, that’s something that more recording, more songwriting will surely fill out. No, Vernon’s beard’s not quite as long as Matthew Houck’s. Yet.