Justin Vernon isn’t the first young punk to disappear in the wild and emerge a transcendental folkie. Thoreau comes to mind. As do Retsin (Cabin in the Woods, 2001) and Sleater-Kinney (The Woods, 2005). And if you’re familiar with the indie scene’s freak-folk-out of the past half-decade, this isn’t the first you’ve heard of For Emma, Forever Ago, the meditative mood-fuck Vernon assembled alone in his dad’s Wisconsin hunting cabin under the name Bon Iver. After a limited self-release last year, the disc wound up on some Blogtown best-ofs, and Jagjaguwar picked it up for an “official” release this month.
While none of Bon Iver’s background notes scream “new”—dissolved love affair, check; band breaks up (Vernon’s freak-jug outfit, DeYarmond Edison), check—the chilling, rusty grandeur of For Emma will stop you in your snow tracks, however little it snows around here. And there’s the key: Equal parts awe and nostalgia, hearing Vernon’s muted strums and granular falsetto fade like spun sugar into breath vapor is like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. With idiosyncratic vocals and the simple acoustics of a man alone in this world (plus guitar), the tunes could’ve easily melted into monotony. But each track folds seamlessly yet distinctively into the next, like imperfect logs split and added to the pile; audible is the intensifying beat of a heart burdened by physical/emotional labor, and the layered echoes of a ghost chorus cascading across a chasm or against the walls of a creaky cabin-turned-cloister.
Bon Iver’s French-ish nom de plume, along with intermittent mementos of his process (minor studio tweaks included) and the bold move of throwing out the real name “Emma,” hints at a sort-of sound vérité. But his bon mots are blab-and-retract, the details muddled in heavy metaphor and barely discernible murmur. Whimpers work better than words, though, to express the husky tenderness of “Skinny Love” or “re: stacks.” For Emma is a work uncorrupted by trend or tricks, but now it seems like every band wants to find its own side of the mountain. Vernon says “the goal was to hibernate”—to which Thoreau tsk-tsks: “as if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”