It’s spelled wrong on purpose. French for “good winter,” the phrase is correctly written “bon hiver.” For singer and songwriter Justin Vernon, though, the misspelling fits the broken-down aesthetic of his full-length debut.
Harrowing in its stark intimacy, “For Emma, Forever Ago” (Jagjaguwar) is a close, quiet set of songs Vernon wrote and recorded while living alone for three months in northwestern Wisconsin. All that isolation evidently sparked a catharsis, and Vernon sounds wrung out at times as he exorcises heartache and regret in a voice that often quavers on the verge of falsetto.
Muted anguish trembles below the surface of songs propelled by Vernon’s acoustic guitar and augmented here and there with ambient electronic noise or wordless vocals soaring off in the dark. (A few tunes feature drums and bass, too). But his double-tracked voice makes these songs truly mesmerizing, lending a slightly out-of-sync feel to “Flume” and turning “Skinny Love” into a wrenching retrospective of failed romance.
His music is as much a product of the setting as of the songwriter, and Vernon’s tunes seem to flicker with understated resolve against the cold winter nights pressing in on his remote cabin in the woods. It’s lonesome music, with a streak of startling honesty — in fact, the lack of artifice on these songs sometimes calls to mind a man baring his soul out loud because no one else is around to hear him.
That may have been true in the wilds of Wisconsin, though the buzz around “For Emma, Forever Ago” suggests that Bon Iver is finding an audience now. That’s good enough for this winter, regardless of how you spell it.
(Photo by Sarah Cass)