Review Summary: ‘I toured the light; so many foreign roads for Emma, forever ago.’
For those unfamiliar with the band or Justin Vernon, the founder and centre of Bon Iver’s creativity; Bon Iver are a culmination of indie and folk; this making them susceptible to absolutely every hipster in the past half-decade to jump on the band’s fresh take on the two genres and pummel all emotion and honesty out of it with an indecent level of brutality. ‘Skinny Love’ in particular having been absolutely skinned of its beauty by many cover performances from indie artists as well as others for commercial use. Putting this aside, For Emma, Forever Ago is the exact antithesis of the initial expectation one might get when looking at the genres from a glance. Looking into its background, you can see why – The dissolution of Vernon’s band ‘DeYarmond Edison’, the ending of a significant relationship & the contraction of mononucleosis in 2006 culminated in Vernon’s decision to isolate himself in a small cabin in Medford in Northwestern Wisconsin. There, he recorded For Emma, Forever Ago single-handed, save a guest vocal appearance on the first track and a supporting musician in the eponymous track.
It is quite difficult to comprehend the significant level of loss one Vernon probably felt at the time (I contracted mononucleosis earlier this year and it was a terribly difficult experience that I still feel the effects of). However, listening to For Emma, Forever Ago, the album just reeks of the melancholy that those incidents embody. The reluctance to re-engage in society, the environment he was in – the endless roads and winter cold, the longing for something beyond where he was at that point in time – the very title itself hinting at this; ‘Forever Ago’ existing in a timeless realm of even dreams or hope. It all comes out through the instrumentation, Vernon’s vocal performance, lyrics and the production.
The majority of songs on the humble 9 track album are simply Vernon’s voice coupled with his acoustic guitar, with the occasional production-feat thrown in to build atmosphere – ‘Flume’ starting the album in some humble beginnings with a crisp guitar tone opening the song before his brilliant falsetto vocals gracefully drift over the melody of the chords. Numerous vocal tracks add layers of mood and emotion to the tone of a song, this having some particularly effective results; ‘The Wolves’ having an absolutely beautiful effect in the middle as Vernon sings ‘What might have been lost.’ ‘Creature Fear’ including some backing vocals to further uplift the choruses and add to the positivity of the song – working very well. All the while, these go hand-in-hand with the honest lyrics that you can tell are written straight from the peculiarly unique heart of Justin Vernon. At times hitting hard with brutal truth in his words: ‘Someday my pain, someday my pain will mark you.’ & ‘Can’t you find a clue when your eyes are all painted Sinatra blue"’ in ‘The Wolves’. Other songs exposing his entire innocence to the world around him, in ‘Blindsided’ he sings: ‘I crouch like a crow, contrasting the snow. For the agony, I’d rather know.’ and some simply being his poetic expressions of acceptance and memory: ‘For Emma’ taking two sides in its lyrical content of a ‘Him’ & ‘Her':
For every life…
Forgo the parable.
Seek the light.
…My knees are cold.’
All in all, it works well and rarely ever seems out of place; only briefly touching this in ‘Lump Sum’ which appears to lack direction as well as suffering a continuous issue of the album – the production at parts resulting in incoherence. The calm and solemn vocal style of Vernon combined with the numerous vocal tracks sometimes robbing the listener of actually knowing what he’s singing about. Likewise, instrumentation suffers – with acoustic string pickings turning into audible blurs. Atmospheric blurs nonetheless albeit not getting the treatment they deserve necessarily – ‘Blindsided’ & ‘Lump Sum’ being notable examples of this.
However, the majority of tracks remain crystal clear, even to the extent of the listener being able to envision the cabin and that honest, rustic environment; the gentle and continuous strumming of ‘Flume’, the hearty and tired chords that hum in ‘The Wolves’, the vibrant and almost post-rock elements of ‘For Emma’ & the intertwining melodies of ‘Re: Stacks’. The production has its flaws but ultimately allows the album to express its roots and the emotions behind the music at an honest and peaceful level that the album deserves.
For Emma, Forever Ago is one of those albums that works so well because it takes you exactly where the album came from. Listening to it, you can’t help but compare your own emotions to the longing tones of ‘Flume’ & ‘The Wolves’ and then the resonating acceptance found in ‘For Emma’ and its powerful moments. You hear Vernon’s voice, you hear the acoustic guitar and the rustic melodies it carries and you’re there – at that cabin in the woods, the end of it all and the start of something new. Listening to this album won’t change your life or immediately heal a heartbreak, but it takes away the fog that otherwise conceals the path to the future. Rarely ever is it that an album achieves such a profound impact, born from the heaviest of emotions.