For Emma, Forever Ago
REVIEW BY: Melanie Love
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/03/2008
I tend to be pretty instinctive with my music; it’s either love or, well, not so much love, and I can usually tell on first listen. Then came Bon Iver (alias for singer-songwriter Justin Vernon) to shake things up. On his debut as Bon Iver, Vernon -- following the disbanding of his band DeYarmond Edison (who later reformed as Megafaun, without Vernon) -- holed up in his father’s cabin in northern Wisconsin to write and record the bulk of this disc. His isolation gives For Emma, Forever Ago its wintry, ruminative intimacy, though Vernon’s songs have a lovely sort of orchestral fullness that belies the usual image of an singer-songwriter toting an acoustic guitar (something which Vernon called in an interview with Pitchfork “boring for the most part. The song actually needs 80-500 people singing or whatever the vibe is of that room, it needs that fight.”
It took me five or so spins to fall for this album, but when I did, I fell hard. It’s one of those albums that struck some tender nerve with me, for whatever reason. It breaks your heart and mends it all at once; it’s like a love letter that you can’t bring yourself to shred, that culls up all those same memories each time you see it again. Bon Iver’s sound is familiar, a little like Elliott Smith with more frills or Iron & Wine, though in some essential ways Vernon paves new ground that is wholly his own. There’s his voice, for one, which rises from a stunning falsetto to a grittier, grainy timbre. Then there are the lyrics: vivid, syntactically so kooky, and hypnotically alliterative. Just incredible, really. Take opener “Flume,” with its wavering strings, close-mic’ed guitar accompaniment, and the unsettling refrain “Only love is all maroon / Gluey feathers on a flume / Sky is womb and she’s the moon.” It’s stripped-down and strangely pretty for its chilliness.
“Lump Sum” takes “Flume”’s almost uncomfortable closeness and airs it out. Opening with a choir of multitracked Vernon’s, he then adds in quick flicks of acoustic guitar, voice soaring on lines like “In my arbor ‘til my ardor / Trumped every inner inertia” and his final sentiment, “We will see when it gets warm,” both of which seem to capture the mood of both isolation and tentative hope that colors this album.
Then, of course, there’s “Skinny Love,” the track with which I’ve unwittingly pissed everyone off by playing on loop for the past week or so. On an album so uniformly excellent, it’s tough to pick a standout, but this song would likely qualify. It’s a striking, atmospheric encapsulation of love gone hopelessly wrong, not bitter exactly, just broken and drained. Vernon’s vocals come like a pained sigh but reach richness by the end as he asks, “Who will love you? Who will fight? Who will fall far behind?”
And from there, it’s all good, too. “Blindsided” builds on a single repeated note and Vernon’s muted vocals to a lush, buoyant chorus, while the propulsive “Creature Fear” is full of slow-burning belligerency, like its climactic sentiment, “So many foreign worlds / So relatively fucked / So ready for us.”Meanwhile, “For Emma,” with its shinier post-production horns, is the love parable the album has been building to, featuring a clear-eyed Vernon emerging from the other side of the relationship’s agony, ending with the bittersweet “I toured the light / So many foreign roads for Emma, forever ago.”
With all of Bon Iver’s material, he makes it look so simple to craft terrifically complex, but more importantly, resonant songs that speak to heartbroken yet resilient humanity. For Emma, Forever Ago is truly remarkable.