Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ by Bon Iver
. “Emma is not a person, Emma is a place you get stuck in; Emma is a pain you can’t erase.” -Justin Vernon
It’s been just over a decade since Justin Vernon, under the moniker Bon Iver, released his modern masterpiece ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’. Largely, when getting exploratory about a piece of music, it’s important not to dwell too much on the personal lives of those behind it, but this record is one of the exceptions. The story behind Vernon’s 2007 piece of art is one so consuming and intense in nature that it aids in making this album as singular as it is.
Picture this; it’s late 2006 and Vernon has recently parted ways with his original band, DeYarmond Edison. He has no money, takes ill with pneumonia and breaks up with his girlfriend. Troubled and tortured by his recent life experiences, he returns to his native Wisconsin, retreating to his father’s log cabin in the woods with only a guitar and some basic recording equipment for company. This is where he remains for the winter months, having a type of ‘Into the Wild’ experience, living only off the venison he hunted himself. What transpires next is something no one, not even Vernon himself anticipated.
‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ is a journey, an emotional story that pulls you into its depths and makes you feel like you are transcending elsewhere, beyond the musical experience. The record consists of nine tracks that were initially worked on as a way for Vernon to heal his inner-self, but what happened was something so hauntingly beautiful that it went on to affect the lives of millions.
That is one of the most endearing attributes of this album; Vernon had no idea how big it would be or how much people would relate to him pouring his soul out. The underdog element to this record is perhaps why so many have been drawn to it; a young man beaten down and trodden by life flees his problems in the modern world and with nothing left immerses and cleanses himself in nature and music.
An equally important part of this album’s prestige is Vernon’s vocals which are breath-taking throughout, resonating as powerfully as any instrument used on the record, maybe even more so. As soon as opening track Flume begins it’s impossible not to be drawn in by his atmospheric voice and compelling tale; this impact doesn’t falter for one moment, not till the closing track re:stacks fades out. The vocals are multi-layered and dramatic, but still portray his vulnerable lyrics and themes flawlessly.
This dual-layer to Vernon’s vocals was added to his initial cabin recordings before the album was re-released to wider public consumption in 2008. To re-create this effect live in the early days, Bon Iver would hand out lyrics sheets to audiences to sing along. The drum machine and horns heard throughout were also added to Vernon’s original recordings, but they are subtle and understated enough to add to the album without damaging its authenticity.
The album flows effortlessly and stays simple in its nature the whole way through; an acoustic folk sound that at certain times almost surpasses the genre with its rich, moody feel and its singer’s emotive and impressive falsetto.
Not a lot can be said for the song-writing except that it’s magnificent and Vernon’s lyrics are poetry. re: stacks displays the simple profoundness of his words in what seems to be a message or email to someone regarding his experience in the cabin. “This is not the sound of a new man, or crispy realisation, it’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away, your love will be, safe with me.”
The lyrics and yearning vocals contained on this record simultaneously offer a bleak but hopeful message. Although filled with loneliness, isolation, regret, heartbreak, confusion and loss, this album is oddly comforting, like a reassuring friend on a dark night.
Skinny Love went on to be the most commercially successful track. The simplistic but catchy guitar rhythm and Vernon’s honest heartache were a combination that created something so genuine that many found solace and comfort in it. “I told you to be patient, I told you to be fine, I told you to be balanced, I told you to be kind, now all your love is wasted? Then who the hell was I?”
These feelings of heartache and hurt run into the album’s title track in which Vernon delivers more one-liners revolving around his failed romance. “With all your lies, you’re still very lovable.” Despite the melancholy sentiment of this track, it’s the only one that offers a more uplifting chord progression that creates a slightly more upbeat sound thanks to the addition of horns.
This is not just an album about a broken heart though; Vernon is letting go of more than his failed romance, he’s letting go of his past life and his former self. Tracks such as Flume and Blindsided, with their icy tone and powerful imagery, show how Vernon’s music is becoming one with the harsh winter he is witnessing and how he is being transformed by it.
Overall, “For Emma, Forever Ago” is a piece of brilliance that has stood the test of time and will continue to do so. It would be an impossible feat for any musician, even Vernon himself to recreate such a record. It offers something truly special that is very hard to pinpoint; perhaps it was the combination of Vernon’s raw emotion, his chilling vocals, and a cold Wisconsin Winter.