Some albums don't find you at the most opportune times. That's just how it goes. This is one of those records. If this had found me when I was struggling through personal turmoil and loss, it likely would have made an even bigger impact. Having said that, it's not too often that an album from someone I hadn't heard of hits you that hard. This album though, was a breath of fresh air for me, and getting to learn it and enjoy it with my now wife was a terrific experience, Today we add another entry to the Albums of my Life series, with Bon Iver's slow, thoughtfully crafted debut “For Emma, Forever Ago.”
By now, everyone knows the story. After a difficult breakup, main musician Justin Vernon was suffering from a very bad illness. I won't go in to that too much, simply because it's been beaten to death, but that's how he found himself in a cabin trying to recover both mentally and physically.
Even from opening track “Flume,” you can hear the singularity in the creation of the record. Most of the songs are primarily Vernon himself, while some tracks added things after the initial recording. It's very rare where an album goes so extremely well with the surroundings under which it was recorded in, but “For Emma, Forever Ago,” is undeniably one of those records. The coldness of the north stubbornly sneaks in to the album itself, and you can feel it's presence throughout.
One of the big stand out tracks of the album, perhaps the most noticeable track, finds us at number three. “Skinny Love” is such a powerful, emotional love song that it stays with you long after you hear it. The guitar acoustically emerges quietly, and the next thing that arrives is Vernon's earnest, gentle but firm voice. Seriously he has one of the most genuine voices in all of music. You feel his struggle to make things work when he tells “you to be patient.” Since I was introduced to the song it had a big impact on me, and it's managed to stay with me for years. That's what makes a good song great.
The next track, “Wolves(Acts 1 and 2)” is one of the quietest songs on the album, but it's also one of the most beautiful. One of the most effective things utilized here are the very faint background vocals that bleed through every now and then. The song, while super quiet ad forlorn early on, gently builds to a wonderful crescendo at the end. “What might have been Lost” bellows out like a cloud over water while the strumming of the guitar and drums become more prominent. Then everything vanishes again and we're left with Vernon's soft, painful voice. It's really one of the best sections of the whole album.
The second half of the album though, is where you fully realize how amazing this record is. “Blindsided” has the soft reflection reminiscent of walking through the snow gathering wood for the coming storm. Much of the album has that quality to it, but since it's primarily the setting under which the album was created, it completely works and makes sense.
Listening to this, I always wonder what the relationship was like. Most likely it had it's ups and down. I mean, the relationship did end after all, but almost certainly it had it's good sections. Even more curious to me though is how the former partner of Vernon feels about potentially being the inspiration for the record. Like I mentioned earlier, it's also likely that the media and music buzz filters made more of this than was warranted, but I can't be the only one who is curious what this person thinks of the record right?
“Creature Fear” is easily one of the most powerful songs on the album. I don't mean powerful in terms of like, heavy or loud, but what he does here still has a good bit of force to it. At first you get a very quiet song, and again you feel his reservations about a situation, but then the guitar picks up, as does his voice, and you have this warm, full sound. It very much reminds of sitting in front of a fire, but most of this album does. After the fullness concludes though, it's back to sullen quiet and guitar picking, but it picks up again, and with it comes a textural background that wasn't as prominent previously. The drums are there, and they segue into the next track, “Team.” “Team” really isn't even it's own song, but rather a continuation, but I like that the drums from the previous track are still there, and the beat goes on. It's one of the few sections where music and not vocals is the most important function, but it works well. Also the whistling at the end is a unique touch that you don't hear too often,
“For Emma,” the second to last song, is not only the title track in part, but it's also the most upbeat song on the album. It utilizes the whole band, and the song is very complete. The beat also makes it really easy to move to. Next, the song has always reminded me, at least in terms of instrumentation, to Neutral Milk Hotel. NMH might be a bit more energetic at times, but the way Vernon melds the horns, soundscapes in the background, and the upbeat nature of the song automatically makes me think this was at least in part inspired by Jeff Mangum and company.
The last song, and most certainly the prettiest, is “re:stacks.” The track is pretty self explanatory, and to me tells the story of a man fully realizing that things aren't going to be all right, and that it's time to walk away and start fresh. I have no factual basis for this, but one of my favorite things about any music is the ability to take the source material and use it to form your own thoughts and opinions. Music can be many things for many people, but although everyone hears the same songs, each interpretation can be different.
The idea of the song's core to me is the memories of growing up, and the plethora of troubling times that come with it. Maybe I'm stretching here a bit, but that's what my theory of the song is. Anyway, Vernon on this track draws on back in to his world one more time, and relays the importance of what we just listened to. We end the album, much like we began it. A soft but glorious voice, quietly strumming an acoustic guitar, and working through his own difficulties.
It's not often an album comes along and is the perfect memory of a time that has already passed, but Bon Iver's “For Emma, Forever Ago” will always serve not only as a reminder that things get hard, but also as a reward for having made it through the bullshit with my sanity and self respect intact. Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed.
Landon Murray is a published writer and an avid lover of music, books and films. He's also a lover of the New Orleans Saints. He was born in 1982 and has a chainsaw tattoo on his arm.
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