#461: For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver
Bon Iver revived soft folk with his bare hands. Just like Elliott Smith did, he managed to take a genre that’s existed since the beginning of time and make it feel new. It also reflects incredibly well on him that he has cited the freaking Indigo Girls as one of his influences. (Justice for Rites of Passage, which should absolutely be on the list.)
Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, was going through a period of transition before he recorded this album. He got dumped, which sucks. He also got kicked out of his band. So naturally, he retreated to a cabin in Wisconsin for several months, where he apparently went through his own personal My Side of the Mountain and recorded this. Despite the fact that this album deals quite strongly with themes of lost love, he’s insisted that the titular Emma “isn’t a person. Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma’s a pain that you can’t erase.” He self-released it on MySpace in 2007 (remember 2007?) and then got picked up by indie label Jagjaguwar and released it again in 2008.
I can almost guarantee you’ve heard “Skinny Love.” I first encountered the beautiful Birdy piano cover, but the acoustic scruffiness of the original is still so poignant and captivating. And the lyrics are so poetically surprising, sometimes unintuitive. Vernon has said that he always started with a song’s melody, and later went back and added words that he thought fit, using syllables like puzzle pieces. That’s why there are lines like Sullen load is full so slow on the split, which don’t quite make sense but hang there and vibrate. See also: the line I was loud by your lowered seminary sold on “Creative Fear,” and the title of “Flume.”
Vernon’s never deviates from his acoustic guitar/crazy falsetto formula here, and it works. (Seriously, though, how does he keep his voice up so high for so long?) He adds touches of other things occasionally — I loved the Catholic choir intro on “Lump Sum” and the sudden electric guitar on “Team.” “For Emma” has an understated horn melody throughout, making this straight breakup song a bit sunnier. But “The Wolves (Act I and II)” makes the biggest transformation over its five-minute runtime, moving from a sparse, slow strumming pattern to a dramatic electronic climax.
I think the thing Vernon does best, though, is make this record feel like winter in Wisconsin. He’s not necessarily confessional, keeping his listeners at arms’ length with his syllabic obsession, but you can feel the freezing isolation despite it all. And some of the stuff he writes about is, for lack of a better phrase, small town shit. I recognized the scene in “Blindsided” where he breaks into an abandoned building, and also the person in “Re: Stacks” who uses his gambling problem as a metaphor for a relationship.
In short, something is really captured on For Emma, Forever Ago, though the lyrics are so opaque it’s difficult to put your finger on. Maybe that’s what’s captured: the circumstances of being so isolated, you can’t even express yourself properly. Or maybe it’s just that Wisconsin is cold. I guess it’s open to interpretation.