Every year there are endless discussions on the perfect autumn record or the quintessential summer jam, rarely does the conversation center on winter. Usually the amniotic waves of a shoegaze epic (Ride’s Nowhere, the Verve’s A Storm in Heaven) or a bleak collection of outsider folk (Smog’s Wild Love, Comus First Utterance) succeed in thawing or fortifying icicles in the soul (depends on the preference).
Recorded during a harsh Wisconsin winter, wide-released in the midst of a disheartening Ohio winter, and taking his name from the (misspelled) French for “good winter,” Justin Vernon or Bon Iver began his debut For Emma, Forever Ago as an isolated acoustic exorcism and emerged three months later with an album of near celestial enlightenment. At first glance Vernon could easily be lumped in with the bearded, given the limitations he set for himself it feels like a low-key session but quickly becomes sonically gorgeous. The falsetto that lifts “Flume” is surgeon pure(for example) as if engineered by the omniscient ghost in the room – capturing Vernon’s breaths turned to frost, his ribs contracting for heavy pauses. These are the primal nuances the listener never sees in a song; on something like the haunting gold of “Skinny Love” even the negative space is transformative punctuation.
At the album’s middle “Blindsided” is met with micro-electronics that never crowd the minimal grace, allowing Vernon to record a chorus of himself without overwhelming the intimate confession. That clarity builds into “Creature Fear,” the compounded beauty of both his rustic earnest and the peaceful ambiance he was hoping to achieve.
Winter albums, I conclude, require both comfortable submission and deep concentration, lucid transparency and hidden charm. For Emma, Forever Ago is a diary of cold hands, connecting with a clear moon, and bursting with quiet sparks in the snow.
Comments must include favorite winter album.