Review Summary: With bolder steps, Bon Iver could become a voice for our generation worth getting excited over. For Emma, Forever Ago already is.
When Justin Vernon’s previous band broke up and six years of despair came crashing down on him, he fled to “hibernate” in a cabin in Wisconsin. For three months he was cooped up, taking those six years and turning them into song. This story has been told many a time to explain where exactly Bon Iver (butchered French for “good winter”) and For Emma, Forever Ago
came from, and the tale has long since lost that luster of romanticism that preceded even the album itself. That’s not to say that Vernon’s plight should lose any of its meaning, and the album he has created is nothing short of breathtaking and personal. But the story only frays the edges now for an album that can very well explain itself, and it’s in this way that Bon Iver has achieved a magnificent feat: For Emma, Forever Ago
is a heartbreaking and heartwarming album that ventures deeper than the story of its origins could possibly entail.
To be fair, Bon Iver does his best to capture the cold isolation of the recording’s locale. Each song, drenched in layers, are puffs of breath in the cold air, and it only helps to construct the fragile atmosphere that For Emma
holds. Most importantly, it illustrates the intricacies of Vernon’s voice, which swims in higher octaves, pulling back or showing cracks in brief spurts that accentuate and bring vulnerability to the title. “Flume” is a jumbled mess of Vernon’s intimate mumble, drawing the title lyric out in a rough, compacted moan, while “Skinny Love” jolts wildly in pitch, while his layered vocals mingle amongst the rolling guitars and low drum thump. “And I told you to patient / and I told you to fine / and I told you to be balanced / and I told you to kind” become little yelps in Vernon’s care, turning the lyric into cry of desperation. In “The Wolves (Act and II),” he’s accompanied sparingly by a computerized laye, before the song becomes an instrumental clash.
As an album, For Emma
is consistent in a certain texture; the cold separation of vocals and instruments is noticeable, and had Vernon varied the production by bringing his voice in with a warmer tone, For Emma
could branch out more than it does. Even so, the songs are pure examples of catch and release, like the bass-heavy, sonic boom of the understated “Lump Sun,” which keeps the production from fully engulfing the instruments by making the melody quick and fluent. The simple acoustics of “The Wolves (Act and II)” bypass repetition by smartly heaving the bulk of the song onto Vernon’s voice. The intertwining bass-drum note in “Blindsided” gives the song a suspenseful rising towards a climax, which come in waves as the five-minute track plays out.
As short as it is, For Emma
’s first side still outweighs the second as individual songs, frontloading the album with the most immediately striking tunes. It helps then that the album feels as short as it does at a brisk nine tracks and 37 minutes, but the second half works mostly as an uninterrupted segment. With “Creature Fear” and “Team,” the tracks move so swiftly and elegantly that the transition between the two is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smooth. The former begins on a chorus, sending the melancholy of For Emma
into a more spiritual and uplifting passage, and the track follows it with the innocent twang of Vernon’s guitar. The latter trudges along its bass line, complemented by the quiet chorus lurking underneath the marching of drums. As the album comes to a close in “Re: Stacks,” Bon Iver completes the album on its most saddening and heartbreaking statement, a drunken lullaby untouched by anything but Vernon’s languished performance and guitar. “I keep throwing it down, two-hundred at a time,” Vernon states early, finishing in a moment of self-clarity, “it’s hard to find when you knew it / when your money’s gone and you’re drunk as hell.”
But it’s the album’s closing statement that rings true and captures the meaning to For Emma
: “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization / it’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.” Following the him-and-her conversation in “For Emma” (where Vernon concedes: “With all your lies / you’re still very loveable”), “Re: Stacks” becomes more downtrodden and isolated, just as it should be. Vernon did not find redemption in his snowy cabin, just solace from his problems, replicated here through the unbroken silence left to dangle on the end of the album. After such a strong finish, it’s hard to imagine where Bon Iver could possibly go from here, but with bolder steps, Bon Iver could become a voice for our generation worth getting excited over. For Emma