Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)
Every great album needs an equally great creation story, the myth of its genesis, the raw material of its run at immortality. For Emma, Forever Ago passes that test. Specifically, it is the end result of a broken relationship, a disbanded indie-folk outfit, and a period of intense isolation in the snow-driven Wisconsin woods. Justin Vernon, who adopted the Bon Iver moniker as a manglicized version of the French for good winter, endured a run of bad breaks, like many of us do, and reacted in a way that more of us should: he turned it into something of lasting value. Alone in that cabin, he might have made the worst sort of moping bedroom folk, but instead was able to hew something from the ice and wood and solitude that can only be called backwoods soul. His multitracked falsetto shimmers like windowpane frost, etched delicately atop solid rhythms punched out of an acoustic guitar, and spiced with a few horns, some spare drums and the odd electric guitar twang. There are the inevitable Iron & Wine comparisons, and they're valid, but only if you mean the mature Iron & Wine, as on The Shepherd's Dog, where the hushed folk plucking is seasoned with a broader musical palette. For Emma... is a lush, beautiful listen, the sort of album that worms its way into your life so that you find yourself conforming to its rhythms; background listening becomes focused listening. The strength of this record is in its ability to hold your attention, and I think it does that because of its unique genesis. It seems obvious to me that Vernon was writing and recording these songs for himself first and foremost, and that makes us spies on a series of very private moments. When an artist is this naked, the product can't help but prove compelling.