Before exiling himself in the frontiers of northern Wisconsin for three months, Justin Vernon had been known only as the frontman for the talented but somewhat vanilla Americana band DeYarmond Edison. When he returned to civilization, however, Vernon had named his most recent and largely solo project Bon Iver (a play on the French for “good winter”) and his voice had been recast as the embodiment of soul-searching isolation—unseating Sam Beam of Iron & Wine in some indie circles.
In truth, For Emma, Forever Ago does bear a strong resemblance to the gentle, folk ambience of early Iron & Wine, particularly on tracks like “Flume” and “Blindsided.” A key difference—and a critical one—is the transformation of Vernon’s singing style since his days as a somewhat generic whiskey-soaked crooner. As Bon Iver, he introduces a ghostly, self-harmonized falsetto that recalls the tight soulfulness of TV on the Radio and the fragility of Antony and the Johnsons. It’s a whole lot spookier and more stirring than Beam’s sleepy whispering, and when Vernon really pours on the choral effects (“Lump Sum,” “Creature Fear”) it can sound downright spiritual. The whole remote-cabin bit sounds too much like a clever publicity tool, but For Emma, Forever Ago requires no such backstory to earn its keep.