Buy it on Amazon.
I could fill a Top Ten list with Bon Iver songs and videos.
Start here: “Heavenly Father,” at the Sydney Opera House, with the Staves.
And a close runner-up: “Halocene.”
We all know people who have, in metaphor or reality, gone to the woods, looked deep and brought back a report from the interior. That’s admirable. What’s sad is what they have to show for their troubles; more often than not, their dispatches are trite. In Vernon’s case, a band breaks up, a relationship ends, he leaves Eau Claire to lick his wounds, and when he returns, he’s got a scraggly beard, a wool cap and some songs — if you’re suspicious of that guy, you’re not wrong.
Vernon smartly added a bit of production here, some backup there, and let the music breathe. Overnight, a cult formed for the band known as Bon Iver — a play on the French for “good winter” — and its debut CD, “For Emma, Forever Ago.” [To buy the MP3 download from Amazon, click here.]
The creation story didn’t hurt. But this was one time an ascent is almost totally because of the musical achievement. Here’s Vernon’s take:
“It’s been painted in the reviews of the record as this magical four months of hunkering down and writing a record. In reality I headed out to the cabin because I just didn’t know what to do next in my life. Once I got there though it just felt like all the blocks that I had put in my brain and heart in terms of musical expression started to loosen. They had been there for so long and the only thing that was able to loosen them up, and loosen me up, was having that much space….”
Space, as it turns out, is the glory of “For Emma”. The lyrics are sparse and enigmatic — the opening lines of the CD are “I am my mother’s only one/It’s enough” — and sometimes they’re more sounds than words. The music will strike prissy listeners as mere strumming. If there’s a clear gift here, it’s Vernon’s voice — he can go falsetto so fast and true that even Neil Young has to bow.
“For Emma” was followed by more releases. The lyrics were consistently enigmatic. The music was more unclassifiable. No matter: the group won Grammys, Vernon collaborated with Kanye, boundaries were breached and breached again.
There is a through line in Justin Vernon’s music: his ability to bring you to the very gates of mystery. He not only explores inner space, he creates it. In “For Emma,” you’ll experience open fields, open hearts, what Vernon calls in one song “the sound of the unlocking and the lift away”. In its small size lies its vast power. And more: It makes you feel peaceful. And hopeful in the way that you sometimes feel hope at the far side of tears.
“For Emma” is gossamer — you may not remember how most of these songs go.
But be warned: It imprints. Very, very deeply.
JUSTIN VERNON & TU DANCE
In 2018, Vernon collaborated with Tu Dance. On December 4 and 5, he’ll be performing with this company in Brooklyn. For tickets, click here. Here’s a small idea of what you’ll see.
December 4, 2016: Brooklyn. One of the most exciting concerts I didn’t see. NPR preserved it.
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