This record really surprised me. I mean, what really good music has come out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, ever? Yeah, he didn't record the album there, but that's where he's from. Justin Vernon is Bon Iver, pronounced "bohn eevair" which is french for "good winter," and apparently hiver is spelled wrong on purpose. The winter he's referring to is November-January 2006-2007, when he shacked up in an old hunting cabin of his family's in northwestern Wisconsin. He'd just broken up with his longtime band, and decided to surround himself with quiet seclusion to think, write, focus on music, and simply experience the land. His music developed into something that was entirely him at that point; he lost all the songs and journal entries he'd written when his powerbook hard drive fried, which forced him to begin anew. Over the next two-three months he wrote, in his own words, "seven songs that have succeeded to pull me through a hardened shell of myself, suprise me, entertain, impress and even heal me. They are me, and I am them, but, they sound nothing like I have ever really written before. No need to explain, I kind of understand." He describes a completely new feeling for him; a discovery.
With only himself and a collection of modest recording equipment and microphones, he recorded one of the most beautiful folk albums I've ever heard. There is a distinct feeling of sadness behind these songs, but for the most part that emotion doesn't carry over to the listener. More than anything this album has a calming effect. The music is his acoustic guitar, a bass drum, and layers of his voice. That's really about it. It may be hard to convey here what he's accomplished with so little, but first listen invariably entices the response, "that's beautiful." He sings in falsetto almost entirely throughout, and made me think immediately of Daniel G. Harmann, but the intimacy that Vernon creates is simply unparalleled. It's like David Gray's A Century Ends era, when he was recording albums in his certainly-not-soundproof apartment.
There's just something so real about this album. There's no pretense, just honesty. "All of his personal trouble, lack of perspective, heartache, longing, love, loss and guilt that had been stock piled over the course of the past six years, was suddenly purged into the form of song."* The lyrics tell the story of a man who takes time off from his life to evaluate it, and the growth that occurs because of this. In the first single, and one of the most passionate tracks on the album, "Skinny Love," Vernon wavers between regretful pleading to frustrated affirmations, and captures the feelings at the precipice: at both the end and the beginning. From
sold my cold knotin "Lump Sum" to
a heavy stone
sold my red horse for a venture home
to vanish on the bow--
this is not the sound of a new man or crispy realizationin the album's closer "Re: Stacks"...we certainly get the feeling that he's figured something out, and that this album serves as both the catharsis (the process) and the celebration (the result).
it's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away
your love will be
safe with me
*Bon Iver on VIRB (listen to the entire album streamed)