Review Summary: An album about, and for, isolation.
The wind is howling right now. With every gust that rattles my bedroom window, the snow piles higher up on the ledge and obscures my view of the outside world by another inch. It feels like I’m being slowly entombed, but not in a bad way. I’m surrounded by items of comfort: a cup of hot cocoa rests next to my keyboard, steaming up the inside of said window. There’s a soft glow emanating from my small electric fireplace; I can even imagine the sound of wood crackling. There’s a light draft, so I pull my favorite hoodie over my head and sit down to write. For Emma, Forever Ago
: an album that always seems to be spinning in the coldest and darkest of times, yet one that always brings me comfort.
is vastly understated. Just about everyone knows the story by now, about how Justin Vernon retreated to a remote cabin in Wisconsin following a devastating breakup, and how he recorded the entirety of the record with little more than an acoustic guitar and minimal percussion/backing instrumentation. The emotional setting is as important as the geographical one. This is an album about, and for, isolation. You can just about feel the lump in Vernon’s throat when his falsetto quivers at the line ‘for the agony I'd rather know’
overtop the soft, thumping beat of “Blindsided.” The entire experience comes from the perspective of rock-bottom
– alone, literally and figuratively – with nothing left besides music. It’s precious not so much because it was recorded in seclusion, but because it’s a totally pure distillation of love, loss, and what it means to be vulnerable.
There’s nothing here to highlight any of the songs. Vernon harmonizes with himself, strums vigorously to accent emotion, and pens honest, humble verses. If any of these songs are striking, it’s an organic beauty grown out of the album’s bare, earthy subject matter. “The Wolves (Act I and II)” feels primal in its expression, with pristine acoustic chords – few and far between as they are – ringing out to fill the room in a way that no production technique ever could. The bleak lyrics (‘someday my pain will mark you’
) are secondary to the atmosphere Vernon paints; the song feels
as if it is nearly half silence, and you can sense Vernon slowly becoming lost in his thoughts between each strum. You can even begin to make out the wooden furniture…the wispy cold, breathing through the cracks in the foundation…the fiery hearth as it projects dark, leaping shadows against the opposite wall. That’s part of For Emma
’s magic – this mythical ability to transport your imagination. It’s a testament to the album’s setting, and specifically Vernon’s ability to absorb and subsequently express it through music, even at the most granular of levels.
Even the record’s more pop-sensible
moments, such as the opener “Flume” or the single “Skinny Love”, remain firmly rooted within the desolate little snow globe that is For Emma
. Vernon’s croons on the latter are heartbroken and real, as his voice coarsens and cracks with each line in the refrain: ‘…And now all your love is wasted, and then who the hell was I" And I'm breaking at the britches, and at the end of all your lines…Who will love you" Who will fight"’
It’s passages like this that bring the human element to the little cabin in the woods
setting, where Vernon sounds as shattered as ever. On the former, Vernon’s high-pitched vocals and ice-tinged piano notes clash against the lower register of subtle horns and the thumping beat of a drum. It drags you into this desolate and frostbitten corner, setting the scene perfectly for what is to come over the next thirty minutes.
It takes until the closing title – “Re: Stacks” – to witness much warmth, where the guitar strings seem to roll more gently off of Vernon’s fingertips, while his falsetto sounds less tortured and more reflective. It’s a small moment of comfort – this tiny ember – in a cold, unforgiving environment. It’s a microcosm of what For Emma
represents on its whole: an escape – this womb
– where Vernon is temporarily sheltered from the harsh conditions of his external reality. For so many listeners, it has served a similar function. Not everyone has the ability to retreat to the mountains of northern Wisconsin, but music is a vessel through which any of us, with a little imagination, can travel quite handily. It’s a locale in which we know there exists a compatible soul; one who understands the very real struggles of loneliness and depression, who has lived it, written and sang about it, and returned to tell his story. For Emma
This is not the sound of a new man
Or a crispy realization
It's the sound of me unlocking and the lift away
Your love will be
Safe with me