Review Summary: Soulful, emotional, and beautiful.
I awoke today to the faint smell of wood burning and crisp sunlight shining into my face. I felt the scratchy underbelly of a bear-skin blanket rub against my face like sandpaper, and the room in my cousin’s log cabin in Canada that I was staying in was freezing. No, literally freezing--the guest room in my cousin’s house is one of the few rooms in the tiny house that doesn’t have heat or electricity. Than the soothing sounds of an acoustic guitar forced its way into my head, stimulating what senses were left. My eyes finally fluttered open, and I forced the ice blocks I now had for feet to unthaw as I went downstairs to the living room.
The living room was nothing more than an extremely comfortable leather couch, a hot and burning stone fireplace, two ancient, crackly speakers and a dusty Windows 97 laptop in the corner. My cousin gave me a scalding cup of hot chocolate, which I drank from soothingly. Folk music was quietly playing from the speakers, nothing more than a soft acoustic and crooning, soulful vocals. My cousin and I sat in utter silence, doing nothing but taking an occasional sip from our hot chocolates. The folk music was perfect for the time: there was nothing icier than a metal acoustic guitar, but Bon Iver’s vocals were so soulful and warm that I felt more warmth from them than my hot chocolate. It actually felt as if he had sung these heartfelt folk tunes in the same conditions that my cousin and I were currently fighting against: below-zero outside, sitting next to a fire in a secluded log cabin, which he essentially did. Bon Iver--or Justin Vernon, if we’re going by his actual name here--hibernated to northwestern Wisconsin just before the coming winter just to get away from it all: his long-time band had just broken up, leaving Iver wanted some peace and quiet, and judging by the isolated sounds on his debut, titled For Emma, Forever Ago, it sounds like he got exactly that.
The songs on this intimate and soothing first album are layered and layered of emotion and feeling, yet normally doesn’t consist of any more than a simple acoustic guitar, vocals, and background atmospherics. You feel the loneliness and bitterly cold seclusion that Iver no doubt felt in his stay, and the fact that this feeling resonates so beautifully makes this so much more different than other folk albums released in recent times. This isn’t a completely secluded project however, as “Flume” features flute from Christy Smith from Raleigh’s Nola and “For Emma” features horn work by John DeHaven and Randy Pingrey. Extra help does sort of break the ambient feeling of seclusion, and these two songs are somewhat lacking compared to the rest of the album here. I felt the most freezing emotion in upbeat ballads such as “Skinny Love”, where Iver sings so outwardly and so soulful that you could actually see this song conquering the top 40, and in soft and sometimes ambient tunes such as “Blindsided”.
Hearing this album in my cousin’s icy abode conjured up so much emotion and feeling that by the time the first nine tracks had passed, I thought that my cousin had discovered the next greatest thing. Listening to a burned copy in my car on the way home, however, showed some cracking flaws in Bon Iver’s debut. Sometimes his vocals can be too uplifting and soulful that it doesn’t fit very well with the desolate guitars, making an icy song melt away into sameness. The only non-acoustic track, called “Team”, is also a slight failure, sounding like an Army marching song than a desolate folk tune, and its mix of thumping bass and whistling fails, unfortunately.
But I’m not about to contradict myself and say that this is a poor record, because it is not. It’s a deeply emotional one, and you might have to be in the right mood to fully enjoy its desolated brilliance, but when that moment comes, you’ll be never be happier with what an album gives you. Yes, For Emma, Forever Ago has some flaws. But these flaws make it all the better. So on your next hunting trip, when you hang back in your freezing cabin for some non-existent warmth and rest, you now know exactly what to play on your crackly speakers.