As anyone who's ever been camping deep in the wide wilderness can tell you, nature can be terrifying. There's the constant danger of death or injury, the various rashes and insects you can encounter, and the difficulty in remembering which berries are safe to eat and which will leave you in a quivering heap on your tent floor chewing on the heel or your hiking boot. It's rough out there.
However, nature is where we as humans truly belong. The manufactured comforts and habitats we've constructed for ourselves can both protect us and leave us gravely vulnerable to our own endless pursuit of perfection and fulfillment. When our hairy and hunched ancestors climbed their way out of the barren wastes and cracked out their first crude tools they never envisioned the automobile or the iPhone or the 50" 1080P LCD with 7.1 surround and Blu-Ray player. When they hung the loose pelts of animals from their frigid shoulders they never dreamt of Armani or Hollister or Calvin Klein. They lived in and with nature, blended seamlessly with it's often cruel and unfair rules, they saw the vastness of the ocean or the unscalable mass of a mountain peak and recognized their tiny role on this earth. In today's world we forget our place in nature, we get caught up in the cyclical mazes we run from home to work to the gym to Cheesecake Factory to whatever.
Almost every sound we hear from waking to sleeping is man-made, our lives consist of structured rules that run against the grain of our instincts. The song of the wild lies deep and dormant, drowned by the drone of duty, stifled by status quo and washed out by worry. When a man can stand on the fold of the unknown, lead only by imagination into the woods with no schedule or timer, surrounded by the random cacophony of nature and allowed to simply breath in the pure, fresh air, something awakens within. Our primal, root animal nature is called out and we suddenly want to catch a fish with a spear or climb a tree or feet the moist soil on our toes.
I can only speculate as to the reasons Justin Vernon, heard here under the moniker Bon Iver, retreated to a remote cabin in Wisconsin for four months to record his debut solo record For Emma, Forever Ago, but when you sit quietly and listen to this record a current seems to run through it, a raw, ragged and unpolished theme that is as naked and unashamed as nature.
Strings buzz on an ancient sounding acoustic guitar, the sound of a foot tapping on a wooden floor, missed notes and voice cracks take all the "indie-alt-folk" people have released in the last few years and expose it for the masquerade of hip urban posing it's become. To simply pine for the rural 1930s does not a folk singer make, to merely recreate the sound of a long-lived man strumming lazily on a dusty back porch doesn't produce the sun-kissed women in white cotton dresses running through golden fields that the iconography of depression-era country life promises. No, in the end all you have is a bunch of confused kids wearing their great grandfather's wool pants and trying to spin anachronistic tunes from generations ago.
But I digress.
Opening For Emma… is the quiet strum and mosquito buzz flowing gently under the ghostly expanse of Vernon's brittle wail on "Flume." It's a sound that seems to come from far away, skipping across treetops from some hidden place. The kind of sound you hear across the water when you sit on the edge of a lake as the summer sun sets.
The lead-in to the second track "Lump Sum" is a muffled hum of sweet vocals, barely audible, interrupted by a steady heartbeat thump that doesn't seem to come from a bass drum. Again, the multi-tracked vocals are divinely imprecise and the harmonies seem to have a mind of their own; Vernon seems to be unconcerned with technique and relies on nothing but feeling to guide his melodies. This is quite apparent on "The Wolves (Act I and II)" as minimal strums lay a thumbnail sketch of a composition as the dry lyrics gasp their way through the drops of guitar. In a way it sounds like TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone's alley cat meows minus the loops and thundering backdrop.
Each track feels like part of the same conversation, a piece of the same day caught from different perspectives. While some albums come across as collections of good songs and some can be seen as a cohesive "album," For Emma… comes across as one uninterrupted composition. There are breaks between songs, naturally, but the close of one and the start of another seems like simply drawing a deep breath and continuing on with the story. It's apparent that the same instruments, environments and elements were used, save the occasional use of strings and minimal keys, to completely blend the album into one musical thought.
The first noticeable appearance of drums is at the climax of he Wolves" and again almost at the end of the record on the somewhat Broken Social Scene-ish (Scenic? Scene-esque?) interlude "Team" which leads into probably the most sonically well rounded track "Emma," which would probably be the most compatible as a single. The record ends with the beautiful, understated melody of "Re: Stacks" and several seconds of silence as per cassettes and vinyl records of old.
As I said before, I can't speculate what lead Justin Vernon into the woods, but if the music he created while there leaves any clues I'd say the call of the wild would not be ignored and he had to leave the noise and predictability of modern life to answer it. Frankly, one can hear nature in these songs and we are lucky to be able to share in this small part, even vicariously.