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Jesse Kornbluth

Jesse Kornbluth

Posted: September 12, 2008 07:27 AM

Bon Iver: Good Luck Getting This Gorgeous Music Out of Your Head


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The creation story is already a legend.

As winter descended, Justin Vernon moved to his father's cabin in the woods of Northwestern Wisconsin. He was "60 miles away from anyone I love, sometimes more like 1500." But he was "about 18 feet away from everything I love" --- a pile of old guitars, a mound of microphones, wires, chords, electric boxes. For several months, he dug in, chopping wood, thinking, writing, playing, recording. When he emerged, he had nine songs, about 35 minutes of music.

We all know people who have, in metaphor or reality, gone to the woods, looked deep and brought back a report from the interior. That's admirable. What's sad is what they have to show for their troubles; more often than not, their dispatches are trite. A band breaks up, a relationship ends, he leaves Eau Claire to lick his wounds, and when he returns, he's got a scraggly beard, a wool cap and some songs --- if you're suspicious of that guy, you're not wrong.

But Justin Vernon turns out not to be that guy. He smartly added a bit of production here, some backup there, and let the music breathe. Overnight, a cult formed. Now he and his two-man band are known as Bon Iver ( a play on the French for "good winter") and his debut CD --- For Emma, Forever Ago --- is on all the best iPods.

The creation story hasn't hurt. But this is one time an ascent is almost totally because of the musical achievement. Here's Vernon's take:

It's been painted in the reviews of the record as this magical four months of hunkering down and writing a record. In reality I headed out to the cabin because I just didn't know what to do next in my life. Once I got there though it just felt like all the blocks that I had put in my brain and heart in terms of musical expression started to loosen. They had been there for so long and the only thing that was able to loosen them up, and loosen me up, was having that much space....

Space, as it turns out, is the glory of "For Emma". The lyrics are sparse and enigmatic --- the opening lines of the CD are "I am my mother's only one/It's enough" --- and sometimes they're more sounds than words. The music will strike prissy listeners as mere strumming. If there's a clear gift here, it's Vernon's voice --- he can go falsetto so fast and true that even Neil Young has to bow.

The triumph lies in Vernon's ability to bring you to the very gates of mystery. He not only explores inner space, he creates it. You'll experience open fields, open hearts, what Vernon calls in one song "the sound of the unlocking and the lift away". In its small size lies its vast power. And more: It makes you feel peaceful. And hopeful in the way that you sometimes feel hope at the far side of tears.

"For Emma" is gossamer --- you may not remember how most of these songs go.

But be warned: It imprints. Very, very deeply.

(cross-posted from HeadButler.com)