Thursday, January 29, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2008: 7. BON IVER - For Emma, Forever Ago

By now the mythology around this album is so entrenched that it feels gratuitous to repeat it, but here goes: after the break-up of his band and a relationship, and suffering from a bout of mononucleosis of the liver, Justin Vernon retreated to an isolated cabin in the woods of northern Wisconsin and stayed there for three months; chopping firewood, hunting for food and eventually deciding to write and record the songs that constitute his debut record, For Emma, Forever Ago. Vernon originally considered the recordings to be simply demos that would be fleshed out later, but the positive reaction he received from friends persuaded him to release them in their original form. Unsurprisingly, there’s a pervading atmosphere of loneliness and regret throughout the album. For the most part, the musical backing simply consists of acoustic guitar and occasional percussion (a couple of tracks were re-recorded after his return from isolation, notably ‘For Emma’ which features horns and a more uptempo arrangement). However, Vernon treats his voice like another instrument, layering and overdubbing it, resulting in striking passages like the choral intro to ‘Lump Sum’ or the cathartic climax to the haunted ‘The Wolves (Act I and II)’. Although some of the songs lay bare his inner anguish (‘Skinny Love’s ‘I told you to be balanced / I told you to be kind / now all your love is wasted? / then who the hell was I?’), Vernon is said to have written most of the lyrics in response to the syllables of the melodies. It makes sense, because this album isn’t so much about lyrical meaning so much as it’s about sound and atmosphere: every hushed chord and every aching falsetto convey a sense of deep loss, the kind for which words are inadequate. It all ends on a tentatively hopeful note, with the devastatingly beautiful ‘re: stacks’: ‘everything that happens is from now on...'

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