You may have heard the story surrounding this album; troubled artist, Justin Vernon retreats to his father’s log cabin in the Wisconsin woods, where for three months he lives alone, hunting deer and recording songs under the name `Bon Iver` (bad-French for `Good Winter`). A bit like that Sean Penn film, `Into The Wild` then, except we get a great album at the end of the ordeal. It’s an interesting story, and one that the music industry has lapped up eagerly. In the space of two days, I went from not knowing who Justin Vernon was, to being bombarded by acclaim from BBC 6 Music, Later… with Jools Holland, The Observer and MOJO.
So, apart from the cinematic tale of the lonesome grizzly-man imposing self-exile on himself and living with the animals, why all the hype about Bon Iver? Well, to start, there’s Justin Vernon’s voice. It’s haunting in the same way as Jose Gonzalez or Ian Curtis, but elevated to an eerie falsetto. Sometimes he multi-tracks his voice like a choir, a technique which is most effective on `Lump Sum`. You can almost feel the loneliness of being in a derelict log-cabin in the middle of the woods, with only the sound of your own voice as comfort. However, the album is as uplifting as it is depressing. Vernon is gifted the same talent for restrained melancholy that the late Nick Drake.
The 9 songs of `For Emma, Forever Ago` sound at once modern and dated, as though they could have been written 100 years ago. Though Vernon’s poetic lyrics are always abstract, like ripples on lakes of sadness, they never seem gushingly emotive. There are no melodramatic overstatements on show here. Some of the harshness of his wilderness experience seeps through in the foot-stomping `Skinny Love` with imagery of “blood seeping down the sink” and “breaking at the britches”. Vernon says that his hazy lyrical style has been inspired by the Midwestern songwriters John Prine and Richard Buckner, though his style remains alluringly unique.
Even down to the obtrusive snow of the gloomy album cover, these songs have a touch of creepiness and isolation about them, that could be easily mistaken for `dull` or `depressing`. On closer inspection, they are anything but. Listening, one can imagine Vernon living nearby the Blair witch in a ghostly forest. However true the story of this album is, it is a strikingly original one and Vernon has succeeded in conveying a heart-breakingly raw set of songs that go against the current musical landscape. Whenever you feel like things are getting on top of you, shut yourself in the garden shed with this album and enjoy the solitude.
- Joe Mac
[MP3] Bon Iver - Skinny Love - Buy the album here
[VIDEO] Bon Iver - Skinny Love (Live on Later...)
[MYSPACE] Bon Iver on myspace