The fact that Justin Vernon created his masterpiece in an isolated den in the woods of the untouched Northern U.S.A. might influence some in thinking this is a cold album when that couldn't be farther from the truth. Instead of being cold itself, For Emma
is a warm album for cold times, an album that sparsely demonstrates how powerful the woods can be as a creative and healing instrument for our minds to tap into. Vernon's escape into the cold could be used as a metaphor for how wildly fast and loud every-city America these days and how sometimes, we need to escape. And that's where For Emma
works best - as an escape from the velocity, a cool down from the stresses of civilization. A comparison to For Emma
that comes to mind is Eddie Vedder's similar sounding score to Into The Wild
, a movie about a young man who decides to leave everything behind in favor of a life of solitude in nature. But where Into The Wild
fails as a too hyper-literal and sensitive commentary about society's mishaps, something we as a collective species already know all too well, Vernon instead works a more personal affair, using his own experiences that create a much better connection with the listener than Vedder's work. Vedder wanted us to think how he thinks; Vernon just wanted us to feel.
The majority of For Emma
is based around Vernon's meloncholic yet upfront acoustic playing that centers each song around swirls of backing vocal croons and light percussion. Vernon writes songs that are from the heart, but don't dig too much into his so that the songs can be submerged into yours. What I mean by this is that Vernon doesn't spend so much time writing about specific perils as much as just being a human, locked away in the woods and For Emma
is all the more gut-wrenching for it. It's a relatively light album, not much density to its sound, but the way Vernon so passionately croons lines like "this is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization / it's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away / your love will be safe with me
" in the life-affirming "Re: Stacks" gives the album incredible amounts of emotional weight. Combine that with Vernon's knack for creating soulful songs that are catchy enough to be featured on a radio somewhere (Skinny Love) or slow moving, brooding minimalist passages (Blindsided, The Wolves) and you're left with an album that works as a collection of well written songs and as a consistent piece, each moving part working together to fuel the heart at the center.
About a couple of years ago, I went upstate into New York's Adirondack woods to complete a 46 day leadership expedition with troubled kids that focused on staying in the moment and being able to unravel your ability to survive on your own. We were outside in the cold, in the woods for 46 days straight, with nothing but food rations, a tarp, and many layers of clothes to keep us afloat amongst the blizzards and searing winds, all the while working together to lift our lives out of the ground and to get away from the speed of our everyday lives, the same speed that brought us enough troubles to be out here in the first place. We woke up everyday, made our breakfast, and then hiked, up mountains, through layers of bushes, over rickety bridges, up until dusk where we would set up camp and rest and write poetry and talk until the next day. I remember one hike we had where this kid Scott was having serious troubles as we already hiked 10 hours with 60 pound packs on and he was screaming at the top of lungs for us to stop, nearly at his breaking point. This was the moment where I really felt that the woods was having a profound effect on me, maybe on us all - For 2 hours straight I kept telling Scott that "it's going to be ok, you can do this, you got this man, we're all suffering too, we'll do this together" and even though he angrily shot back at me with an "I know, shutup!", as soon as we got to our resting spot, we plopped down as soon as we could, unbelievably worn out, and he said "hey, thanks for everything" and I knew from then on this was an experience worth having. After hearing For Emma
for the first time I was immedietaly transported back to that moment and then was suddenly rushed back into where I actually was, away from the woods and triumphs over its perils, and I knew that even if you've never been in a similar situation, Vernon has created an album that makes you feel like you have.