Artists of the Year

Bon Iver

By Steve McPherson

When Justin Vernon retreated to a cabin in Wisconsin, he wasn't setting out to make one of the warmest, most tender albums of the year, but that's just what he ended up doing. He was looking to hibernate and get over the breakup of his longtime band, DeYarmond Edison. Instead of succumbing to winter's chill, he built himself a tiny fire of hesitating acoustic guitar and falsetto vocals, cued the tape, and created For Emma, Forever Ago, his first album under the name Bon Iver.

It'd be easy to pin the album's resonance on a surfeit of the feelings on which melancholy feasts: loneliness, regret, heartache, and a fragile hope that it's all only temporary. But Vernon's done much more than simply document these feelings; he's taken that mustard seed of loss and softly moved mountains with it. The songs here bleed a careworn and handmade forlornness, from the first strums of "Flume" to the frosty choral gust that opens "Lump Sum" to the half-minute of silence broken only by a shuffle from chair to recording console that closes the album. Nowhere is this more palpable than on "Skinny Love," a song that reaches down into you, finds hurt you thought you'd forgotten, and pulls it out only far enough to catch in your throat. This is not a record that will grab you or demand anything of you; it's like a gentle touch on your elbow from a former love.

Each year sees the release of dozens of such albums, most of which will never rise above the murmur of background noise generated by thousands of musicians making their way through bedrooms, rehearsal spaces, bars, and recording studios. And in a sense, the very thing that elevates Vernon's effort is a fragility that says this could as easily sink as swim. Self-doubt born of loss is common enough, but it's the rare artist who can build a minor triumph out of such material over a lonely winter in a Wisconsin cabin.

Steve McPherson is a writer and editor at the online music magazine Reveille.

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