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For Emma, Forever Ago 

Album by Bon Iver.
Jagjaguwar.

It is the stuff of folklore how songwriter Justin Vernon (under the name of "Bon Iver") created and produced his sparkling solo debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. After spending several years in North Carolina with the band DeYarmond Edison, Vernon returned to his native home in Eau Claire, Wisc. He holed himself up in a remote cabin for four winter months, writing and recording the basis of this record. Vernon captured and articulated this chosen isolation in an extraordinary way, joining a new wave of singer-songwriters (both in this country and abroad) who have embraced the instrumentation and sound of the organic, with the use of traditional and non-traditional instruments and means, producing a collective New Americana.

For Emma, Forever Ago is filled with rusty acoustic guitar strings, warm hums from the electric guitar, primitive snare drums and angelic, layered vocals. Vernon's singing has an odd high, hollow quality, reminiscent of TV on the Radio's Tunde Debimpe, Brian Eno, Antony Hegarty and a touch of Prince (really). It's full of loneliness and yearning, without a forced mannerism. It's sincere.

"I am my mother's only one / it's enough," Vernon sings in the opening cut, "Flume." This serves as a warning, of sorts. Vernon's lyrics are ciphers, poetic fragments, and dreams that make up his interior monologue. There are hints of lost loves, most evident in "Skinny Love" and "For Emma," but under a proliferation of private messages, much like Michael Stipe's early lyrics with REM. However, with the conviction that Vernon sings and delivers these enigmatic lyrics, it doesn't matter. He allows the emotion and tone of each song to convey its meaning.

The spare arrangement of mostly acoustic guitars and an occasional electric guitar provides a platform for the vocals, often layered, pushed up front and vulnerable. There is a similar texture and sound to that of Argentinean-Swedish songwriter José González and, in particular, his latest recording In Our Nature. The focus is immediately on the sound — spare, lonely and different.

The hymnal introduction to "Lump Sum," the quiet swinging rhythm of "The Wolves (Acts 1 and II)" and the heartbeat-like pulse of "Blindsided" carry a pained, private sorrow. With the assistance of some distant brass parts and an upbeat rhythm, "For Emma" is a near celebration, as if it represents the first glimmer of warm sunshine after a string of frozen days and nights. The record's final track, "re:stacks" aptly bookends the recording. With a lone acoustic guitar and haunting melody, Vernon sings, "[T]his is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization/ it's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away/ your love will be/ safe with me." It's as if this journey of isolation is thawing, slowly. For Emma, Forever Ago is a beautiful mystery.

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Mark Shikuma

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