Released in 2007, the story surrounding the genesis of Bon Iver‘s For Emma, Forever Ago swiftly reached the status of legend within the indie music community.
Suffering from a debilitating bout of mononucleosis, hurting from the sudden disbandment of previous group DeYarmond Edison and left emotionally reeling following the recent break up of his relationship, Justin Vernon retreated to his father’s cabin in rural Wisconsin and, largely in isolation for four months, wrote and recorded the album that would catapult him from struggling journeyman to absolute star.
If there is a gnarlier way to deal with a break-up, I’m yet to hear it.
Strictly speaking, to say For Emma is dealing with just a break up though is overly simplistic. This isn’t about one specific person or event in Vernon’s life. It is a self-reflection on the culmination of his life to date, with all of his failures and pain laid bare in an attempt to overcome them. Those break-ups were merely the creative catalyst.
In typical teenage fashion though, I was first introduced to this album suffering through my first heartache after I’d (really sadly) Google-d something shamelessly angst-y along the lines of ‘best break up albums’. As an angry kid who subsisted on an unhealthy diet of the worst kind of heavy metal at the time, listening to saccharine monster ballads from those kind of bands like November Rain by Guns N’ Roses on endless repeat simply wasn’t cutting it. I was looking for something that went beyond the melodrama, the false bravado and the hollow grandiosity of that style. Something that would resonate with me and express the thoughts and feelings I simply wasn’t mature enough to at the time.
For Emma blew me away in every regard.
The stark, raw minimalism blanketing this entire album is achingly beautiful. Full of the echoes and wooden creaks of that lonely cabin, punctuated for the most part only by Vernon’s haunting falsetto and an acoustic guitar that sounded like it bore a thick coating of dust. The simplistic methods of recording, evidently just a few microphones and some antiquated equipment, might seem low quality, but to me it only exacerbated the overall rawness synonymous with the personal hardship behind this album. It meant you could listen to For Emma and feel as though it was being played to you live right beside you in your bedroom.
Absolutely everything I’d been feeling, I found in For Emma. Every shred of hurt, every bit of self-doubt, longing, rejection, loneliness, fear, anxiety, hopelessness, everything you feel when your heart is broken, even that little ounce of hope that things might get better. It was all there.
The way the album opens on Flume, Vernon mourning that he is ‘his mother’s only one’ evokes an immediate sense of abandonment and betrayal and of tragic loneliness. His description of the after effects of love lost at the close of that song, the ‘rope burns’ you feel after trying to hold on when you shouldn’t, beyond apt.
At times that cabin sounds cavernous, the cacophony of choral vocals that open Lump Sum or the slow building, multi-layered instruments spaced out over Creature Fear give it the impression of roominess. At other times it sounds remorselessly cramped, the confronting silences interspersed between couplets on The Wolves would have a pin dropping passing for percussion.
The raw emotion of the album crests in similar waves, the timing with which Vernon executes the climaxes of songs like Creature Fear and Skinny Love (more on that later) at near perfection.
The Wolves is as painfully direct as any song on the album, Vernon vowing to someone that ‘someday my pain will mark you’. Fearing ‘the wild wolves’ surrounding that person now that he is gone and, at the song’s climax, pleading for the memory of what was lost not to bother him. The truth contained in that one song absolutely shattered me.
The lyrics Vernon puts forth aren’t the claustrophobic fever dreams some would experience as a result of this isolation, but the kind of lucid self-reflection that simply can’t be facilitated by group therapy, only the extended and solitary period of soul-searching he subjected himself to in recording this album. The result is imagery of the utmost beauty on songs like Flume and particularly Blindsided. Vernon seamlessly weaves his natural surroundings with his own inner workings, comparing himself to a crouching crow, ‘contrasting the snow, for the agony I’d rather know’, something pitch black against something pure and white.
Skinny Love is undoubtedly the song that broke Bon Iver huge, and rightfully so. A beautiful, melancholic microcosm of a failed relationship and the story of the malnourished, ‘skinny’ love that Vernon tried in vain to feed. Just he and his six-string and a bass drum anchoring it all.
I wept when I heard Skinny Love for the first time. The hurt is rife throughout the whole song, jarringly palpable as Vernon wails futile questions like ‘Who the hell was I?’ and ‘Who’s going to love you? Who will fight?’. His falsetto is so beautifully flawed, raw emotion bubbling through every crack. Watch the video of him playing it live on Jools Holland and tell me you don’t get chills at the conviction he sings every line with. This may be one of the most personal songs anyone has ever created.
By the time I finished this album for the first time, ending with a titular track full of mournful horns and the played out, metaphoric sorrow of a gamble gone wrong re: Stacks, I was floored. Never had my own feelings been so perfectly encapsulated by music and given meaning. I may not have felt immediately unbroken, but I felt a lot less lost and certainly no longer voiceless.
That Vernon was able to delve so deep into his soul and produce a record so beautiful and so heartwrenchingly honest, a hallmark of the singer-songwriter genre and a contemporary classic, in the face of so much personal and emotional adversity is nothing short of inspiring.
And that’s why every time I have a break up, this is the album I come back to. Fitting then that, as Vernon has announced the end of Bon Iver’s hiatus, I find myself going through the hardest one of my life simultaneously. One that has forced me to confront some harsh truths about myself, put me in possibly the most vulnerable position I’ve ever been in and thrust the culmination of my own personal failures into a stark and confronting light. Even though I’m older and a little more cynically wiser than I was when I first heard this album, the sting of this rejection and the despair I’ve felt ever since have been weighing me down in almost every aspect of my life and it’s not something I’ve been able to deal with very easily.That’s why I’m thankful for this album, because it has gotten me through some of the toughest times in my life and I know that it will again.
As Justin Vernon at his weakest went into that cabin to find himself, I’ll delve back into For Emma, Forever Ago just as I did all those years ago, just as I’ve done time and again since, and try to find myself again too.