One of 2011’s most absorbing, affecting and downright brilliant LPs.
Mike Diver 2011
Whatever maudlin magic musician Justin Vernon found in the remoteness of rural Wisconsin come the close of 2006 and the dawn of 2007 – made devastatingly real on his debut LP as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago – it’s something that many another artist has been trying to conjure since. Dispatch a band into isolation today, to cajole those creative juices, and inevitably some plucky press type will label them as "doing a Bon Iver". The album’s impact on today’s indie-folk scene, and beyond, was powerful, and global commercial success was the unlikely culmination of Vernon’s catharsis following the break-up of both his previous band and a relationship.
For this follow-up, Vernon and band – among them Sean Carey, whose own solo debut, We All Grow, was released to fine reviews in the summer of 2010 – have developed the sound of For Emma… without over-stretching themselves and making a mess of arrangements which are all the more effective for their striking intimacy. There must have been temptation to draft in a name producer – but Vernon sees to that side of the process too, and this control has resulted in a set that’s as arresting in its first few seconds, Perth’s rolling percussion providing a base for Vernon’s exquisite emoting, as it is come the David Gilmour-styled guitar showmanship of closer Beth/Rest. This is how to spend an improved budget (though anything is more than nothing), and expand a sonic palette, without compromising what appealed in the first place.
To some, the consistent mood that pervades this set – of reflection, introspection; bruised and sincere, but never cloyingly so; melancholic, but not without a blurry, horizon-line optimism – might lead to attentions wandering. And there’s no doubt that this eponymous collection isn’t the step into immediacy that some might have expected, or even hoped for. But the majority of listeners will surely come to this aware that nothing on For Emma… leapt from the speakers with quick-fix frills attached. This – like Wild Beasts’ sublime Smother, Julianna Barwick’s otherworldly The Magic Place, and How to Dress Well’s Love Remains – is one of the year-so-far’s finest albums when it comes to repeat-play value: each spin will uncover something previously missed, a tiny but essential nuance that was obscured by a hypnotic motif the first and second time around. Vernon’s songs may appear skeletal on an initial encounter; but, on closer inspection, they reveal studied layers and levels of masterful design.
There can be no doubt that certain critics will have come to this album expecting it to fall short of the precedent set by its predecessor. That it doesn’t, and actually far surpasses the still-echoing resonance of that debut set, is indicative of its standing as one of 2011’s most absorbing, affecting and downright brilliant LPs. It just goes to show that there’s really only one act capable of "doing a Bon Iver".