Holed up in a hunting cabin in the Wisconsin wilds, chopping pine in the dead of winter and spending listless hours hunched over his worn acoustic guitar, Justin Vernon got his brush with the muse only after losing what music he had left. With his PowerBook accidentally wiped clean of its memory, erasing forever several years' worth of songs, Vernon tossed it into the snow and started fresh.
"It was really a metaphor for me that those songs were leaving," says Vernon. "Every one of those songs were all written the same way about the same things...like I was wrapped up in my influences, rather than approach it myself with any sort of honesty or validation."
What resulted was For Emma, Forever Ago under his latest moniker, Bon Iver (a mangled version of French for "good winter"). Its eight tracks have, for the last year, allowed Vernon to span the U.S. and Europe playing one sold-out show after another. Though in earshot of the "tender guy with a guitar" concept that has pigeonholed bedroom artists like Vernon, For Emma is far too dense an affair to be reduced to singer-songwriter typecasts, or even bear much resemblance to the rustic hillbilly rock of Vernon's former Raleigh, N.C., quartet DeYarmond Edison. A fusion of fireside folk with Vernon's meticulous knack for production—he was once a studio engineer for The Rosebuds and Nola—the album is, at its very core, a meditative canvas on which are spilled the inner haunts of a gifted scribbler cut off from influence.
Vernon's lyrics often border on unintelligible, but carry the weight of a compact libretto brimming with meaning. For this album, he would record himself humming the melodies, then painstakingly construct the words based on the layers of disjointed syllables he heard.
"I had all these things on my mind that had been unexpressed, like unextracted," says Vernon. "It was very freeing. I found all this shit, all this grudge and meaning in what I was singing. So I was able to do all that completely unhinged."
Not to say that anything on For Emma is at all cluttered, as is apparent in the modest acoustic strum on opener "Flume" and the Gregorian swell that sets the staccato pulse of "Lump Sum" in motion. Tacked together by Vernon's husky falsetto, and swaying from the soft cadence of "Blindsided" (with its finger-picked accents and tape-splice interludes) to the stop-and-go arrangement of "Creature Fear" and the buoyant bass line and spectral whistles on "Team," the album as a whole strikes a balance with Vernon's subdued murmurs—which only occasionally break into an achingly gruff holler.
As is the case with most debut artists on the road—especially those with such personal and carefully crafted songs as Vernon's—the typical Bon Iver show has featured For Emma track for track, relying on the album's inherent energy to drive the performance. But since Vernon has been playing the album across the globe, in its entirety, for more than a year now, he says fans at the Nashville show can expect a taste of some new material that will be included on a four-song EP to be released this November.
"[The new songs] all came from different places over the last year, so they're very scattered," says Vernon. "They're not cohesive at all, very disparate."
If Bon Iver is any proof, though, "scattered" is how Vernon works best: deceptively bare-boned, intricately barbed and heartbreakingly vulnerable.
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