Review Summary: Bon Iver's first album develops an earnest emotional connection with the audience that is ultimately marvelous.
A despondent break-up, the dissolution of a man’s former band, and a nasty case of mono. Who would have thought that the combination of these unfortunate events would have led to something so charming? In light of these difficulties and turning points, Justin Vernon retreated and secluded himself from the outside world. As a result, For Emma, Forever Ago was born. Ever since the album hatched and was widely released in 2008, Bon Iver has become a respectable household name. Bon Iver's first album is so honest, so genuine, and so vulnerable that it rises above the typical definition of music in the search of something profound.
For Emma, Forever Ago is marked by its low-key, skeletal foundation, zeroing in more on Vernon's heartfelt vocals and his guitar, while allowing the thinly dispersed percussion and additional layers to enter the frame only when absolutely necessary. Establishing that emotional bond is where Bon Iver surpasses many of his contemporaries. As the record unfolds at its own pace, we slowly get to know who Justin Vernon is, what ails him, and what keeps him going. Additionally, the LP's wintry feel only adds to the meek sphere of influence Bon Iver generates. Through firsthand experience, the listener absorbs Vernon's inner monologues and sheer loneliness so that, by the end, the listener feels like he or she has undergone something deeply emotional right alongside Vernon himself.
The album's production plays a well-defined role, but it mostly keeps its hands off what makes the album stand out: the passion. Vernon's voice is harnessed in a myriad of exquisite ways, often exceeding the instruments themselves in terms of overall impact. The vocals themselves are so alive and spirited that they interact with the listener directly, reaching out with both desperation and kindness. Stealing the show on tracks like "The Wolves (Act I and II)" and "Blindsided", the depth of Vernon's voice expresses sentimental insight and embodies the angst that he is holding onto. The album dwells on the past and willingly shuns the present. It ends up reading more like a diary in which Vernon exposes his psyche one step at a time.
The tracks work together fabulously to comprise a unified record free from overemphasis on instrumentation and more focused on the poignant milieu. To top off its demonstrative atmosphere, For Emma, Forever Ago also capitalizes on some brilliant hooks that stay with the listener long after the album has concluded. Some notable examples are "Skinny Love", "Flume", and "For Emma". "Flume" immediately becomes so grandiose while never losing contact with the suffering that has locked Vernon in this world of doubt and pity. The song flows like a river as Bon Iver employs a simple set of guitar chords to devise a passageway. However, once the chorus hits, the bubbling fervor takes the helm.
Another trait of For Emma, Forever Ago that gives it substance and replay value is the use of keen, but decipherable lyrics. On what very well might be the album's most moving track, "re: Stacks", Vernon croons "Whatever could it be that has brought me to this loss" to impart his own bewilderment. Tear-jerking lyrics linked with the ethereal vocals produce an effect that is truly magnificent. These outbursts of pure humanity make tracks like "Creature Fear" so memorable, in which multiple layers of Vernon's voice mesh together to recreate a choir effect. What I love about this track is that it refuses to rely on a stable structure and to strive for perfection; it is guided entirely by anxiety. In the end, Bon Iver's delicate performance manages to accommodate all the depth that their music carries.
The band's debut effort brings forth incorruptible songs that exhibit Justin Vernon's fragmented mentality without frills. It's humble, sensitive, and moody. Time will tell, but this album may ultimately come to be considered one of the artistic masterpieces of this generation. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant; Bon Iver's first album exudes intense conviction that can be appreciated by anyone willing to hear what Justin Vernon has to say. What exactly he is trying to say might be hard to figure out right away, but how he says it is quite elegant.