Review Summary: If you go out in the woods today, you're sure to meet a bearded visionary folk singer...Thump, thump, thump
. Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) is coming on like a modern day Jack Nicholson circa “The Shining” with a serious case of cabin fever. Marooned at his desk, day after day, week after week, his beard becoming ever more unkempt, I imagine him suddenly smashing down on the keys of his typewriter. He nods to himself and cackles triumphantly: “Lapping lakes like leery loons!” He grins with saliva flecked lips, continuing feverishly: “Pump the plumb! In my arbor till my ardor trumped ...”!
Because let’s be honest, this is nonsense, isn’t it? I know there’s such a thing as poetic licence and all, but still. Sure the ubiquitous assonance and alliteration are perfectly valid literary conceits, enhancing the effect of the voice as almost just another musical instrument, a path after all well trodden by luminaries such as Sigur Ros and the Cochteau Twins. But there is a problem with the marrying of these lyrics with that eerie multilayered falsetto, often almost a drone. Much of it indecipherable, with only the odd phrase seeping through (“on your back with the racks and the stacks as your load!”), it summons such an excess of claustrophobic surrealism, that it demands some deeper meaning, like say the backdrop story in The Antlers' "Hospice".
Instead we're presented with what seems like self-indulgence. All here is evocation. Take the strumming of the acoustic guitar and the extensive use of lente and forte, the same chords repeated and then repeated some more. How cynical this all seems! Nor is it the classic break-up album filled with heartache that it hints at. (“Someday my pain/harness your blame/solace my game” he groans in The Wolves (Act I and II)
; “Go find another lover to string along” he pleads in For Emma
). I mean, how can it be a classic break-up album, when they haven’t even broken up for goodness sake!
So what we're left with is a man who has slightly lost his grip on reality seeking to imbue everything with a meaning that it doesn’t possess. You don’t even need to listen to the music to realise this. Just look at the pseudonym that Vernon adopts for this project, “Bon Iver”, a kind of fictionalised French, carefully designed to create mystique. Take the album title “For Emma Forever Ago”. What does that even mean
? That the idea of Emma has always existed? That their love belongs to the past and
the future? How about those calculatingly academic and self-conscious song titles, The Wolves (Act I and II)
and re: stacks
with its studied lower case punctuation? Or those oh so educated references to “kumran” and “torah”? What about the carefully cultivated lyric sheet with its overfussy designation of narrator, him and her in For Emma
, including the superfluous “so apropos”? It all screams out pretentiousness.
Sure, now and then Vernon stumbles on to a decent line, like the TS Eliot aping “this is not the sound of a new man or crispy realisation, this is the sound of the unlocking and the lift away”. Even the songs themselves promise much; but somehow the moments are squandered and meander away to nothing. Certainly something strange happens with time when I listen to this album. Some songs seem to last forever, some disappear without a trace as I struggle to recall a single note. Seconds and minutes blur as the rhythm hardly varies throughout the album. A simple, strained melody is repeated over and over, is dropped and then picked up songs later. Except it is still the same song.
Perhaps I’m missing the point here. What Vernon is trying to do is paint a sonic landscape, one that is kept deliberately cryptic so we can invest our own intuitions. But there is a fine line between ambiguous and obtuse, between mystic and charlatan. For me Justin Vernon comes dangerously close to some kind of new age evangelist, chanting a garbled mumbo jumbo of half truths that he craves to be swallowed whole. There's nothing wrong with dressing yourself up as a visionary. But where's the vision?