Like many people I found out about this album via word of mouth accolades from friends and various publications, and I have to say that I feel that the hype is fully justified. Basically, what happened is that Justin Vernon, who pretty much is Bon Iver, spent three isolated months recording at his father's cabin in the Wisconsin woods, and what he emerged with was something special. What's instantly attention grabbing is Vernon's voice, which is often hushed and intimate but is also often multi-tracked to haunting effect, with many a striking vocal arrangement replete with stirring falsettos. Vernon may be the most affecting, emotional singer I've encountered since being bowled over by Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, and though I'm sure that some would consider both singers to be acquired tastes, the music on this album is actually fairly straightforward for the most part, with simply strummed acoustic guitars being the primary instrument, though subtle, effective embellishments are often added as well, with the end result being that the music is both sparse yet lush, sometimes at the same time. The evocative, utterly entrancing For Emma, Forever Ago has a hallucinatory, spellbinding power, and though there's a sameness that permeates this collection, it actually still works best as a cohesive whole, even though there's some truth to the complaints I've read that the album is more about its overall ambiance than individual songs. That said, I'd say that the majority of these songs are really good and sometimes undeniably great, it's just that I needed a little time to live with some of them before their distinguishing characteristics fully sunk in. The mournful "Flume" memorably begins the album with an instant highlight, "Lump Sum" has an attractive choral vocal arrangement and grooves along nicely, and "Skinny Love," on which Vernon's anger is unleashed, was simply my favorite song of 2008 (the “who will love you?” part in particular gives me chills). The slow, sparse "The Wolves (Act I and II)" has more memorably multi-tracked vocals, "Blindsided" features more instruments and is self-pitying but the song is so gorgeous and his emotions so real that you can't help but feel for him. "Creature Fear" is atypical in that it gets surprisingly loud and expansive at times, before "Team" provides a 2-minute segue that's perhaps the albums only less than necessary song (it's basically a bass solo with a few add-ons). "For Emma" has wonderfully melodic riffs and horns, and is a catchy example of what I'd call "baroque pop," before "Re: Stacks" brings the album to a close with a particularly pretty yet subdued finale. Granted, it's not entirely clear what happened with (or for) Emma, forever ago, but there's no mistaking the mood of lonely isolation that permeates this album, just as there's no denying that listening to it makes for a comforting companion to those going through sad, troubling times. Simply put, this highly acclaimed album is an instant classic.
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