Imagine you're in a public place, say a train station or doctors waiting room, and you can see this person going round gently and methodically whispering in peoples ears. You notice the look on these people's faces change slowly from one of skepticism to one of wonder and delight. You'd really want to know what this person was whispering right? Well as soon as the opening notes of For Emma, Forever Ago come to rest gracefully on your ears you'll realise what everyone else was hearing and your face will too be full of wonder.
Bon Iver (an intentional mis-spelling of 'Bon Hiver,' french for 'Good Winter,') is the work of Justin Vernon and his debut album is a very special thing indeed. It's one of the most beautiful sounds I've heard in a long time and its conception came about under fiercely controlled circumstances and time scale. After the break-up of his former band, DeYarmond Edison in 2006, Vernon opted out of society and took himself off into voluntary exile. Armed with only a couple of microphones, a baritone guitar, two drums, a horn and a reverb pedal he set off for the desolate landscape of Northeast Wisconsin and spent three months alone in a log cabin. Living off the land and hunting for food Vernon was able to shut himself away from the usual chatter of the world and allow an inner voice to emerge in his work. "I recognise that the record is enigmatic and special in a strange way. I can't take full credit for it, and I was the only one there." With no firm musical objective and the basic pressures of survival to worry about these songs grew organically and were governed purely by the natural artistic process that can only flourish under these circumstances. "I was able to access deeper, darker and even happier shit just by this sort of subconscious way of doing it."
Knowing this back story is not necessary, but it adds to the uniqueness of this record. Each song reflects the barren land in which it was born, as shiver and shudder under the clear sub-zero sky, with Vernon's spectral falsetto delivery trembling delicately like the frail trees that sway in the wind outside his window. But the glow of honesty and dedication burns with the comforting warmth of the log fire that crackles within, making this record endlessly captivating and welcoming. A bleak and lonely guitar strum opens the record, with Vernon's vocals tentatively creeping into view, but it's not long before they gently swell with an increased musical accompaniment like a rising flame. "I am my mother's only one, it's enough," is the line chosen to open this record and with it we see Vernon's thoughts turn inwards to memory as if forced by the elements outside. Lump Sum produces a choral arrangement so spacious it suggests a relationship between the empty space outside and the cavernous boom of a mind devoid of worldly noise. Skinny Love sees a rising of tempo and a new gravel sound creep into the voice as it gets louder. As if by way of response to the deafening silence that prevails, Vernon's words "I told you to be patient, I told you to be fine," lift with striking force but stand ambiguous to their target, a past love or Vernon himself?
There was some degree of post production added to the record once the exile ended, with instrumental accompaniments added by Chrissy Smith of Nola on Flume and Boston musicians John DeHaven and Randy Pingrey supplying horns on For Emma. Vernon achieved the choral sound, seen to great effect on The Wolves, by countless overdubs of his own voice. The subtle addition of these third parties and overdubs work in contrast to Vernon's solitary voice, making an interesting mark on the album's atmosphere. Instead of shattering the illusion of confined spaces this only serves to enhance the loneliness, with these added elements circling the central sound like ghosts of past regret rising to the surface of the memory. For Emma is the penultimate song and the inclusion of the horn section is so startling it brings with it a sense of the regret lifting and some conclusion being reached to the questions that have encircled us throughout. It's presence here is like a brief sighting of human company in this desolation and it swells the heart to triumphant heights. But as the achingly beautiful Re: Stacks fades in, the cold and loneliness encroach once more and you wonder if this sighting was only in your mind.
Re: Stacks brings the record full circle and tapers it off with delicate melody, gentle, resolved guitar strums and the sweetest vocals on the record. It leaves you with quiet resolution and the silence that reigns after the song is finished is all the richer for the sounds that have proceeded it. In this silence you beg the world to give you just a little more time, but slowly and surely it crashes in and the spell is broken - until of course you press play again.