After Wisconsin band DeYarmond Edison relocated to Raleigh, N.C., and later disbanded, singer-songwriter Justin Vernon returned to Wisconsin, holing up in his dad's hunting cabin in the woods to record an album, For Emma, Forever Ago, under the name Bon Iver. (DeYarmond Edison's other members formed Megafaun, who performed in town last month at Belvedere's.) Vernon initially released For Emma himself, to strong reviews; earlier this year it was re-released by Jagjaguwar, in the U.S., and 4AD, in Great Britain.
How much you enjoy Bon Iver depends entirely on your patience with lo-fi acoustic strums and imperfect indie-boy falsetto vocals, often arranged in elaborately layered harmonies. And, I suppose, your patience with regard to loneliness, cabins, woods and fragmented, poetic lyrics. My patience with these is finite, and after the meandering opener "Flume," I suspected it wouldn't last a full-length album.
But through a string of subtle twists, Vernon manages to keep the listener's attention and interest shifting in a way that makes for a satisfying collection of songs. "Lump Sum" opens with an overdubbed choral sound, the overlapping cathedral of reverb calling to mind a strange mix of Flaming Lips and, I suppose, Enya. From there, "Skinny Love" recalls Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew in both content and its lower, more strident vocal register, while "The Wolves (Act I and II)" taps gospel harmonies, before subtle studio tweaks give way to clattering drums that sound like fireworks exploding.
To my taste, the second half of For Emma contains the stronger songs. "Blindsided" rides a subtly propulsive drone toward one of the album's most moving melodies, while "Creature Fear" features a swelling, Beach Boysish chorus and some pleasing retro-pop changes. The title track's sleepy brass supports lyrics laid out as a dialogue between a "him" and a "her" (yes, it's rather pretentious).
The album closes with the sprawling "re: stacks," which ends with the album-encapsulating lines "this is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization / it's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away," promising, "your love will be / safe with me." Plenty of critics have offered theirs up accordingly, including Pitchfork, CMJ and the Village Voice, which compared Bon Iver to "seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time."
While I would, unequivocally, prefer spending 37 minutes at the Grand Canyon, For Emma is an intriguing document of grand remoteness and solitary, scenic vistas, if not the thing itself. It's also a bit nearer at hand: Bon Iver plays the Rex Theatre on Sat., Aug. 2, as a four-piece band that includes Mark Paulson, of tourmates Bowerbirds.
Bon Iver with Bowerbirds. 8 p.m. Sat., Aug. 2. Rex Theatre, 1602 E. Carson St., South Side. $12. 21 and over. 412-381-6811 or www.rextheatre.com
- Skinny love: Bon Iver