Blindsided by Bon Iver

By: Dennis Cook

This my excavation and today is kumran
Everything that happens is from now on
This is pouring rain
This is paralyzed

This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization
It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away
Your love will be
Safe with me

Bon Iver by Sarah Cass
Like a haunted mistral wind, Bon Iver's debut, For Emma, Forever Ago (given wide release in February on Jagjaguwar after a tiny independent release last year), arrives, full of tousled longing and an ache impossible to hide. Bon Iver (pronounced "bohn eevair;" a conscious bastardization of the French phrase for "good winter") is the recording pseudonym of Justin Vernon, who retired to his father's cabin alone just as snow began to fall in the wake of the break-up of both his love and his longtime band DeYarmond Edison, whose other members went on to form Megafaun. Built on a series of frozen moments created in solitude over three months in Northwest Wisconsin, For Emma is the rare hyper personal song cycle that manages to touch many, most of whom will have little idea of the underground springs that fed this creation. For Emma joins the ranks of such deeply held classics as Joni Mitchell's Blue, Chris Bell's I Am The Cosmos and Nick Drake's Pink Moon, each a brave laying bare of one artist's insides.

For Emma knocks you back on your heels from the first listen. There's something fully fleshed about it, a human density to Vernon's compact marvel. In just 37 minutes, one feels they've experienced a profound moment – many of them really – in a person's life, and the lack of specificity, the sheer poetry of the storytelling allows these moments to seep into the listener's life, providing beautifully refracted perspectives on the heart and soul, a new set of keys for unlocking one's own experiences. In much the same way as a gifted film director, we enter a place that hums with strange verisimilitude, an individual set of truths that expands naturally into something far more universal.

Bon Iver by Aaron Landry
"That's sort of an aside or a goal I'd love to do with my life as a musician or an artist, and it's cool to hear [it had that effect] but mostly I feel lucky to clear my head to be able to do something like that," says Vernon. "I don't consider myself a solitary person but I've definitely experienced some of that. I needed it to gain perspective; I needed to get a new face and to shed skin. I got down to something personal and examined it, and maybe that perspective, that sort of minutiae or fish-eye, up-close look is maybe what people are reacting to."

There's something a little scary in the aloneness at the center of this album, something unsettling and exciting about the honesty set down on tape

"That's the magic of music for me. What you put into it is what you get out of it. I think aesthetically and artistically I've always operated on this level - and I'm not just saying this because the record is out there in the world and doing well - but nothing I've done to this point has felt this complete. But it's hard to kind of quantify," says Vernon. "I always feel like an asshole when I try to describe it [laughs]. Maybe I should do a better job of not letting it be so folky or whatever so it isn't described in that way. I'm not just sitting here trying to make music that's been made before."

Bon Iver by Tim Lytvinenko
The songs on For Emma are somewhat orchestral in the way they're constructed, strong sections full of sharp dynamics instead of the usual verse-verse-chorus-verse structure. The expression "chamber folk" has been used to describe For Emma, and while most use that generic shorthand for quiet, acoustic based music, there is a mood and flow that actually harks back to chamber music, particularly the overlapping delicacy and whispered conflict of the piano trios of Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn. These songs don't end where you expect them to, lingering or exploding into areas only barely hinted earlier in the piece, giving spotlight to individual instruments or leaving the vocals beautifully exposed, all with a reach that goes further than the "indie rock" label Bon Iver usually gets filed under.

Continue reading for more on Bon Iver...

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