Justin Vernon touches the soul with beauty and emotion on his debut release, For Emma, Forever Ago. Before taking on the solo moniker of Bon Iver, the Wisconsin native served as touring guitarist for The Rosebuds (QRO interview), where he met current girlfriend Elizabeth Powell of Land of Talk (QRO interview), but he recorded his album over the course of three months, holed up in a remote cabin in his home state. Vernon delivers a stripped, personal quality on For Emma that really makes it a standout.
“Flume” opens For Emma with a slowly growing power, a restrained, yet heartfelt piece of melodic, echoing indie-folk. As ‘just’ as singer/songwriter, Vernon can sometimes be a little limited in what he sets out to accomplish, such as on the quiet press of the following “Lump Sum” or the steady, sad drive of middle track “Blindsided”. But most of the time he expands what one musician can accomplish, by instead using his freedom and control to finely match everything on the record. There’s nary a misplaced note on “Skinny Love” as it completely carries the listener along with its moving chorus and bittersweet verse.
What’s more, while sticking to what he knows best, Vernon finds new niches and distinctions in his sound, creating a surprising amount of variety for a one-man album. From the heartbreak of “Skinny”, For Emma travels with “The Wolves (Act I and II)”, an almost traditional spiritual piece, which also contains the wonderful sing-a-long “What might have been lost…” chorus. “Creature Fear” delivers change right within itself, as it goes from low-key finger-plucking folk into big, choral expanse. Semi-title track “For Emma” is more of a straight-up alt-western elegy to the girl in the past (yet still contains some winning, wry horns). Vernon might strip his guitar down a little too far on finisher “Re: Stacks”, but the chorus vocals make it quite fitting as an ender.
Vernon recorded and independently released For Emma, Forever Ago well back in 2007, but it wasn’t until after making a splash in back-to-back days at CMJ (QRO coverage – Day One; Day Two) that he signed with Canadian-Americana label Jagjaguwar. And based on Emma, his star will continue to shine brighter and brighter.