BON IVER For Emma, Forever Ago (4AD)
Has this album ever taken me the longest time to warm to it? With its Chris McCandless-style backstory (after his band breaks up, Justin Vernon takes to hibernating through the winter in a remote Wisconsin hunting cabin, where he ends up recording much of this album) and alphabetical and musical proximity to the work of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, shouldn’t it sound pretty much identical to Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack for “Into The Wild”?
Well, maybe. It’s taken me a year, but I’ve finally achieved a kind of grudging respect for this record, especially when it operates on the more far-flung, uncharted edges of its sonic template. There are moments here that are quite lovely: the reverberant choral harmonies wrapped around “Lump Sum”; the whooping campfire jauntiness of “Skinny Love”, somewhat at odds with its bloodied, salty lyrics; the accretion of percussion that closes “The Wolves (Act I And II)”, sounding like ice cracking; the way “Creature Fear” imperceptibly morphs into whistled, post-rock almost-waltz “Team”. The best bits wait until last: “For Emma”, the closest the record comes to a straight pop song, sounds like a tabletop diorama of one of The Walker Brothers’ huge 1960s productions, a tiny cardboard “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”, perhaps, and almost as great is the cleansing and closure of “Re: Stacks”, which reminds how this album plays with silence more deliberately than anything I’ve heard since Mark Hollis’ eponymous solo debut.
It’s not a perfect album, of course. Vernon’s lyrics are too personal or encoded to offer much succour to anyone living outside his head, and vinyl buyers might find the album’s generally praiseworthy sonics compromised by a sibilance-prone UK pressing. But I’m genuinely surprised to find that “For Emma, Forever Ago” is strong enough to make itself heard through the hype. Blimey, I’ll be enjoying Fleet Foxes at this rate.
BON IVER Bon Iver, Bon Iver (4AD)
So good they named it twice? Following the attention-grabbing recorded-in-cabin-on-a-four-track backstory attached to Justin Vernon’s debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago”, his/their second album represents the opposite end of the sonic pendulum’s swing. Reminiscent of a heavily sedated Sufjan Stevens, pretty much the entire record sounds as if it’s been wrapped in cotton wool. Breathy washes of pillowy sound float around Vernon’s falsetto vocals and guitars quiver and shimmer in jellymoulds of reverb .
For too much of the record the production and arrangements conspire to produce a distancing effect; it’s hard to make out the words and, given the handwritten presentation of the lyrics in he booklet, just as difficult to read them. Vernon’s affectation of naming the songs after locations further distances the listener from whatever emotional content they might be attempting to convey. Yet there are moments when all this gimmickry interferes constructively and symbiotically to create something special. “Holocene” at times evokes Mark Hollis’ solitary solo album with its honking gaggle of brass, “Wash.” jangles like a sad, neglected pub piano, percussed by odd rattles and creaks, and the breathy synths and vocals of “Calgary”are as immaculate as they are insubstantial. On the other hand, “Beth/Rest” sounds like something heard over the closing credits of a mid-80s “inspirational” Hollywood blockbuster.
During Joan Baez’s recent UK tour, “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” was played quietly over the PA as the audience gathered in the venues, and half-heard in the distant background it sounded fantastic, as if it had found its perfect environment. Listened to at home with critical concentration it’s a meagre proposition.
4AD’s vinyl issue of “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” arrives with pretty much the full complement of modern day bells and whistles: there’s a print of the cover art, a lyric booklet and an MP3 download coupon. Unfortunately an occluded-sounding pressing does nothing to champion the cause of what is admittedly some fairly occluded-sounding music.