Or maybe we should thank the label, Jagjaguwar, for smartly jumping on board and re-releasing this album, originally self-released by Bon Iver last year. "For Emma, Forever Ago" has a sad beauty, a somber optimism, that is affecting from the very first strums and very first line -- "I am my mother's only one/It's enough" -- of its very first track, "Flume." If it was under the radar of best-of lists for 2007, it's not likely to be overlooked in 2008.
Following the demise of indie folk group DeYarmond Edison, which self-released "Silent Signs" in February 2006, Justin Vernon appropriately chose Bon Iver -- misspelled French for "good winter" -- for his solo bedroom folk project. From cover to cover -- both pictures of frosted windows -- this album is a wintry affair, appropriate for this reviewer, who only really ingested it during the coldest snap of winter in D.C. Despite a sparse, lonely sound that consists mainly of acoustic strumming and Vernon's beautiful, dynamic and grainy falsetto -- layered atop itself throughout the album -- pop sensibility, heartfelt sincerity and that understated optimism move the music beyond the rootsy folk it's based upon, and the album's orchestral flourishes make it the most ambient folk album you've likely ever heard.
On top of the orchestration and around the primary instruments -- voice and guitar -- Vernon adds a little percussion here and a little bottom there. He takes very little outsider help -- Christy Smith's supporting vocals on "Flume" and the trumpet of John Dehaven and the trombone of Randy Pingrey on "For Emma" -- as the album was as lonesome in its creation as it is in its sound. "Flume" is slow, sad and spacious, and that space -- common throughout the album -- is where the listener resides. The music is that welcoming, another log on the fire. Contextually, though, the song, like most of the songs on the record, is largely a mystery. Vernon's poetry leaves even more space for interpretation, but the phrasings taken individually are vivid and inspiring, like "staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer" and "suckle on the hope in light brassiere" from "Skinny Love" or "The Wolves'" "Can't you find a clue when your eyes are all painted Sinatra blue?" And witness his landscapes, such as, "I crouch like a crow contrasting the snow" from "Blindsided."
On "Lump Sum," the second track, the tempo and instrumentation both pick up. It is eerie and airy and rolls if not rocks. "Skinny Love" seems to announce itself more explicitly as a relationship song, thanks to the title, its individual phrasings and the impassioned singing on the chorus. "The Wolves (Act I and II)" is slower and sparser than "Flume" with a rustic spiritualism. It feels like another relationship number, but as a reminiscing of the past. The soft crescendo that begins the outro, presumably the second act, sinks in beneath then above the repeated line, "What might have been lost." The third time around, Vernon as Zapp adds what sounds like a little technology to the vocals, and then the lyric "don't bother me" plays a give and take with "what might have been lost" until it builds into a bleating choir of "ahhhs" and softly cacophonous, stuttering drums. The unlisted third act is the downbeat chant, "Someday my pain," sang quivering and quiet over simple strums.
"Creature Fear" contrasts the quiet verses against big, loud, swelling choruses and bleeds percussively into and through "Team," which serves as its outro. With its supporting horns, "For Emma" is fleshier, bigger in sound, but the songwriting is in line with the rest of the record. But maybe no song on the record has the impact of "Re: Stacks," the last track on the album. Vernon returns to the simple strum and sing formula, and both instruments convey sorrow and incredible understanding. The best vocal trick comes from the verbal dexterity with which he plays with the "acks" of the chorus, various interpretations of the phrase, "On the back with your racks as the stacks you load."
While "For Emma, Forever Ago" is sure to be one of the most acclaimed albums of the year, it will certainly find a deaf ear among those simply out to listen to a good time. This album is more of a personal listen, a companion and a friend of sorrow. But despite its solemn sounds, it manages to be uplifting, an understanding friend through hard times.