Review Summary: It's really just a matter of how long it takes to be perfect.
Where do you go when you feel lonely or let down? When I was seventeen and my family and I were on holiday, the heat and sangria turned into irritation and an hour-long fight between my father and my brother. I took solace in the coolness of a ceiling fan for about fifteen minutes before I decided to slip out the window; I left a note so my parents didn't worry and walked down through town, along silent Menorcan streets, and stood on the beach on my own in the wind. It wasn't too dark but there was nobody around: just me, a narrow beach, and cliffs on three sides of the world. I think that's the night I fell in love with music properly, because I still have a soft spot for the Editors album that gave me something to immerse myself in. But I know now that there is only one album I would ever play in that situation.
I would guess it has something to do with Justin Vernon's own solitude when he recorded For Emma, Forever Ago in an isolated cabin during the aftermath of a painful break-up, but that's not enough on its own to explain its importance. Over an acoustic guitar, minimal percussion and the most humble of backing instruments, tracks like Skinny Love
demonstrate pop sensibility, but it will never hit mainstream radio because its most crucial line is too hard-hitting to sit through without being affected. Who will love you? Who will fight?
It's one of the more comprehensible lyrics here, but it's definitely not the only one packed full of emotion; Vernon's falsetto vocals quiver and glide through imagery and metaphor and then every now and again he hits you with a sucker-punch of the blunt or the heartfelt like, Your love will be / Safe with me
, the very last thing the record has to say.
While nothing is off-the-wall, it would be unfair to say there is any lack of variation here: Blindsided
is crooned over a wall of the softest sound, and provides a mid-album drop in momentum but never in tension or quality; near-title-track For Emma
is euphoric with its horns and more upbeat rhythm, although it's all relative and it's a collection of songs which never ventures any further than indie-folk with gentle production, frosty songwriting and down-tempo execution. In and of itself, though, it is effortless and 37 minutes slide by; it gets you lost in it. You could probably listen to it in the background if you wanted, but that would be a crime, and the likelihood is that it would command your full attention after just the first four bars of Flume
It's been said that this record would be best played from the inside of a warm car on a freezing winter's evening. While it's hard to argue with that as an ideal location, Emma has two things going for it. Firstly, it doesn't lose any of its potency in different settings, and secondly, it is genuinely capable of transporting you to that safe place if you allow it to. Sure, it feels cold. There are sounds that echo distant trains and far-off ambience. The opening layered vocal to Lump Sum
send one of those warm shivers down your spine that has an unrivalled impact if you're sat on the side of a river in November. But it also brings every other landscape down to a crawl, and provides solace from the crazy world on the other side of the bridge.
That's what For Emma, Forever Ago offers: solace. It honestly does take some time for this record to make its desired impression, but once it's there it can take you back to that fragile and honest place any time you need it to. Some albums exist to pump adrenaline through your veins and some are designed to relax you into slumber. This is both of those whenever you want it to be, but there's no reason
it exists - it's pretty much just the most bare and vulnerable recorded document of loss and love.