For Emma, Forever Ago
Postmodernism describes our current state of living in that it doesn't describe much. No perceivable hierarchy, quick easy interbreeding among the animals now freed from their hierarchical pens, all the offspring of those couplings developing a homogenous patina - acting, looking, smelling, becoming the same. It's a little depressing actually; it implies there are no more heroes and thereby no more heroic gestures to be made. It makes the image of a giant cultural machine eating from tubes into which it itself on the other end.
Fortunately, the organic mess of life has little time for theory and instead seeks scratches for the itches and lately, there has been an itch for something melodious and organic (but not too organic) infecting the masses. The scratcher has taken on many a post-folk form, from the fishtank burble of Brightblack Morning Light to the soft gallop of Iron & Wine to the lock-groove Kundalini patter with which Panda Bear charmed everyone last year. Generally, I am for it; it picks and chooses from the finest portions of a million things: Brian Wilson's harmonies, Arlo Guthrie's ramble, Stevie Wonder's sense of sound, and produces something from it that is joyous enough in its own amalgamation that dissecting it for its origins becomes a fruitless, boring activity. It is music that dares to be pleasing.
Bon Iver is the latest player in this game, flowing in on a soft breeze that blows the scorecards out of the spectators' hands. For Emma, Forever Ago is, at first whisper, a quiet, unassuming, lovely record. Justin Vernon is the baker of this confection that is Bon Iver (purposefully misspelled French for "good writer".) The word has it is he holed up in a Wisconsin cabin with an axe for firewood, a freshly dissolved relationship for inspiration, a guitar and a portable studio for the music-making, and this record bears traces of it. The harmonies are built of choirs of Vernon's earthy falsetto, hanging on to the skeletal guitar figures like leaves suspended by spiderwebs.
Like the landscape in the woods, things get intricate on For Emma, Forever Ago when you move in for a closer look. "For Emma" has a horn section that sounds like a far-off loon, "Lump Sum" starts with an almost Gregorian duplicity of the voice easing into a rather spritely folk melody. This album has texture down pat, but nowadays, any yahoo with a laptop can build up afghans of sound as deep as they want. What fundamentally makes this stick out is the songs that emerge after some focused inspection.
"Skinny Love" is a brilliant folk melody in the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music tradition. The sweetness and familiarity of its lilt is laced with a breath of menace. He practically bellows I told you to be patient at the nervous girl who he commands to cut out all the ropes and let me fall. These gentle pieces hide a monster of sorts, stretching the skin of all this calm over terryified bones. One feels like Devendra and Panda Bear are enjoying an afternoon at the beach, whereas Bon Iver is desperately trying to swim to shore.
On the more orchestral numbers, he reaches the ascendency that one hopes to find holed up in the woods, like if the kid in Into the Wild had eaten the still-beating heart of a deer instead of those toxic onions. "The Wolves (Part 1 and 2)" is equal parts R&B slowjam, with his multi-tracked vocals almost sounding modulated choirs of exaltation, and Steve Reich-buildup of sound. You can almost see light pouring out of his cabin when it gets going. The final track "re: stacks" pares all this back down to just a guitar and voice, bathing it all in gauzy reverb, with the negative spaces implying a the self-discovery in the positive in powerful lines like It's hard to find it when you knew it/When your money's gone/And you're drunk as hell and This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization/It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away. I felt the same way hearing this, as when I first heard Iron & Wine's The Creek Drank the Cradle, and first heard Nick Drake's Pink Moon and first heard Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. This album is a sad, uplifting, transfixing expression of a quiet soul in the wilderness. It everything of the times and letting it drift apart like leaves falling off a tree in the cold.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com