It’s been a good year for Bon Iver, aka Justin Vernon. Last year, Vernon independently released his album, For Emma, Forever Ago. After a round of accolades from online and print media alike, Indiana’s excellent Jagjaguwar decided to make a play for the album and gave it a proper release earlier this year. Recently it’s been placing high in the Amazon.com sales charts. In a time when self-releasing is incredibly popular thanks to the innovation of online music sales, the fact that Vernon not only got noticed, but got noticed by influential outlets, speaks to the quality of this album.
The magic behind For Emma, Forever Ago is Vernon’s voice, a delicate falsetto, more akin to Tunde Adebimpe or Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio than Jeff Buckley. This isn’t to say the music doesn’t carry its fair share. If this were sung by someone else, it would still be a powerful album- – just not this strong. Vernon also takes a tip from TV on the Radio’s vocal stylings by layering his voice a lot.
For Emma, Forever Ago is very old sounding, very ethereal, very far away, and not because it’s produced poorly but because it’s produced so well. It’s the lightly strummed guitar, the occasional banjo, his voice. Vernon recorded most of this album in a remote cabin in Wisconsin and you can hear it in every second.
For the most part, one could comfortably lump Vernon in with some of the more recent, Americana-style singer songwriters, like M. Ward, Iron & Wine or Bonnie “Prince” Billy — and what good company that is. But occasionally, the aforementioned artists have a tendency to be rather dry, and Vernon is anything but. He’s not afraid of catharsis, through lyrics or through his vocal techniques. “Skinny Love” is a break-up song so incredible that you’ll wish it had existed for your last break-up. In “Re: Stacks,” he uses his voice in quick, raised notes, almost like a kind of bark. He’s also not afraid to get a little strange, as the explosive percussion at the end of “The Wolves” or the intense breathing over a jamming guitar in “Team” indicate.
Vernon says on his MySpace page that his original goal in recording For Emma, Forever Ago, was to hibernate. But go figure it would bring him more into the spotlight than ever before.