Thursday, December 3, 2009

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

For Emma, Forever Ago is one of those albums that is so complete in it's perfection that any description belies its true beauty. I will, however, try my best.

If the album exudes a strong sense of loneliness & remoteness, that's probably because Justin Vernon sequestered himself in a remote cabin in Wisconsin for almost four months, writing and recording. The result? An album possessing Elliot Smith’s folk-tinged starkness and the analog-tape warmth of Samuel Beam. The album favours acoustic arrangements, skeletal recordings on analog equipment that are close-recorded. Vernon, however, knows the power of crescendo, both in timbre and volume. And now and then, when he lets his voice shed the hushed/floating affectation, he has a raw abandon that’s quite compelling. While a few parts (horns, drums, and backing vocals) were added in a studio, for the majority of the time it's just Vernon, his voice, and his songs.

It's impossible to pick the best track in an album full of them, but "Skinny Love" shows off his range as he climbs down from the heights of falsetto and shouts out the angry and heartachey words quite convincingly. Framing his voice are suitably subdued arrangements built around acoustic guitars and filled out with subtle electric guitars, the occasional light drums, and slide guitar. Vernon has a steady grasp of dynamics too - the ebb and flow of "Creature Fear" is powerfully dramatic and when the chorus hits it's hard not to be swept away by the flood of tattered emotion. Almost every song has a moment where the emotion peaks and hearts begin to weaken and bend: the beauty of that voice is what pulls you through every time. For Emma captures the sound of broken and quiet isolation, wraps it in a beautiful package, and delivers it to your door with a beating, bruised heart. However, inspite of it's morose undertones, the album never turns into a pity party.

I have no idea who Emma is nor what happened forever ago (Vernon doesn't offer any hints), but it must have been mighty powerful to produce such a meaningful album.

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