BON IVER: FOR EMMA, FOREVER AGO (2007)
1) Flume; 2) Lump Sum; 3) Skinny Love; 4) The Wolves (Act I & II); 5) Blindsided; 6) Creature Fear; 7) Team; 8) For Emma; 9) re: Stacks.
For a brief while, Bon Iver (a graphic misrepresentation of French bon hiver ʽgood winterʼ, so make sure you get your French accent on the right syllable) seemed to be one of the hottest things happening on the indie scene. It was, in fact, like a proverbial indie fairy tale come true: a «visionary», mildly autistic, highly sensitive guy (Justin Vernon, a twenty-six year old major in Religious Studies from Wisconsin), suffering from mononucleosis and girlfriend problems, secluding himself in a winter cabin, completely alone with his guitar and some recording equipment —and out comes a minimalistic masterpiece of lonely, melancholic beauty. This is the stuff NY Times bestsellers are made of.
What really surprised me about this album, upon studying people's reactions, was the rather large amount of «on-the-fence» reviews, along the lines of «fairly nice listen, okay and all that, but certainly not deserving of the hype» and so on. Because For Emma, Forever Ago is certainly not your «average» indie record — it is one of those albums that should be driving people into opposite trenches, machine-guns at the ready. It may be tempting for the evaluator to try and rise above the disagreements, but as tempting as it is, it simply makes no sense. I honestly do not see a way to call Justin Vernon's offering anything other than «genius» or «crap». And in between the two — sorry Bon Iver fans — I can only choose the latter.
Note: At this point, every bona fide Bon Iver fan is supposed to say «You just don't get it, do you?» and click the «Back» button on the browser. You have been warned: leave now, before somebody gets hurt.
First and foremost: I am sick to my stomach of young bearded melancholic Artists locking themselves up in log cabins with acoustic guitars. At the very least, one thing which all that time spent inside the log cabin could be devoted to, would be to fuckin' learn to play that acoustic guitar. If Nick Drake's Pink Moon ever had the right to be called a minimalistic masterpiece (which I am not sure of, but in any case, Pink Moon is fifty times the masterpiece For Emma could ever claim to be), it was because the minimalistic guitar parts were produced by a master guitar player, a genuine demi-god of the instrument. Justin Vernon, in comparison, does not seem to know one thing on the guitar that a bright school kid, listening to old folk records, could not master within one month of picking up the thing.
Second: The proverbially gorgeous falsetto simply does not cut it any more. Unless this is the first falsetto you have heard in your life, the sweet, soothing, lulling sound of Justin Vernon's voice adds nothing whatsoever to the legions of falsetto-using singers already assembled. The only thing of note is the consistency: unlike such wimps as Brian Wilson, Prince, or even Antony Hegarty, Vernon sings almost exclusively in falsetto, threatening the very reputation of the entire State of Wisconsin. A brave chore (unless he also talks like that), but a head-splitting one.
Third and most important. I am not the one to deny the power and importance of atmosphere. I am certainly not against minimalism as such. And I certainly do not agree with Zappa on the general principle that «broken hearts are for assholes». But there are limits to every sort of patience and tolerance, and as far as I am concerned, For Emma crosses that line quite definitively. The broken heart of Justin Vernon is probably the 10,000th broken heart or so that I have come across in my relations with various kinds of art. Just because it took a log cabin in Wisconsin and an all-out falsetto delivery to acquaint me with it, is not going to make me any more excited. Where is the goddamn music to go along with the broken heart?
Admittedly, from time to time there are a few vocal hooks that might, even should be salvaged from the realm of boredom (and if I ever notice someone appropriating them for a better record without sharing the proper credit, I promise to pretend not to have noticed). Most of them are tucked somewhere within the two slightly more upbeat tunes — ʽFlumeʼ and the title track; I also admit to liking the chorus of ʽCreature Fearʼ. The former two have bits of folksy beauty, the latter has a bit of dream-pop charm... somehow, on these three, Vernon must have accidentally fallen upon a few non-standard, evocative vocal moves.
But all of these are exceptions, and they never obstruct too much the overall flow of the record, which is quite comparable with the average flow of a water storage basin on a very slightly breezy day. Sometimes it outdoes itself by dragging at an absolute tortoise pace (ʽThe Wolvesʼ), as we are supposed to revel in the naked pain and beauty of Vernon's voice and its multiple overdubs. More often, it picks the tempo up just a little bit, usually on the strength of some basic folk shuffle strumming. Not that there is any big difference.
As for Justin Vernon's personal drama... you know what? I'm sorry about the guy as I may be sorry for every other guy or girl that suffers more than he or she deserves to, but I find his poetry clumsy and derivative (here is a typical example: "Only love is all maroon / Gluey feathers on a flume / Sky is womb and she's the moon / I am my mother on the wall, with us all / I move in water, shore to shore / Nothing's more"); his attempts to artistically individualize his problems at the same time overblown to the skies and undercooked to the core; and, of course, all the general indie-trendy hoopla fuss raised about the record reflecting the general crisis of the times.
In the end, I have no choice but to agree with Robert Christgau, the lone voice in the crowd to give the album its deserved C+ — or with my old idol Mark Prindle, who dismissed Bon Iver in his usually laconic way: «without the falsetto, it'd just be boring; with the falsetto, it's unlistenable». Count this whole review as a somewhat superfluous commentary on that judgement. And please, please, PRETTY PLEASE, NO MORE BEARDED LONERS WITH ACOUSTIC GUITARS! WHERE THE FUCK IS A ROCK'N'ROLL GUSTAV MAHLER WHEN YOU NEED ONE? THUMBS DOWN, DOWN, DOWN!