A Decade On…
Today, Jagjaguwar is re-leasing Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago to mark its 10th anniversary. Justin Vernon actually self-released the album as Bon Iver in 2007; it was with the wider February 2008 release that Bon Iver was on his way. Long before the curated music festival, working with Kayne and Vince Staples, before the mega-Auto-Tuned 22, A Million, Bon Iver was just a guitar-strumming recluse, a guy in the Wisconsin woods writing about losing his way.
Which makes For Emma that much weightier, far more memorable. A decade later, I still remember where I was when I heard the opening chords to “Flume”, turning the song off, presumably due to its emotional heft, and then coming back to the album later in the day. “Come on skinny love, just last the year/ Pour a little salt, we were never here,” opens “Skinny Love”. How do you listen to that and come out of it feeling better? But you did.
“The Wolves (Act I and II)”? Possibly even harder to take. With just a slight auto-tune, Vernon sings: “Someday my pain/Will mark you” over one of the simplest strums he’s ever done.
What Might Have Been Lost
And still, it’s the type of music that wakes you up, that you need to hear again. The entire album is just like that, and when you are lost (“what might have been lost”) it’s a soundtrack to those times. In 2007/8, just out into the real world, many friends, just out on their own, felt exactly this way, and yet, this was also the music that got us through.
You could point to literally any moment or lyric on this album and highlight a personal revelation that came out of it. “Blindsided” is bridged by a thumping bass note that masks its agony. The bass note re-emerges in “Team”, a pulsating instrumental that leads into the seminal “For Emma”.
And here is where the album cements itself as a singular masterpiece. For so long, I thought Vernon was singing “sold everything” in the opening line, so appropriate to my station in life at the time, which was at a restart, giving things away, moving away. (He’s actually singing “so apropos.”) Then horns come in; a reawakening is taking place after seven haunting songs. There’s no exaggeration here – it’s definitely a song I wouldn’t be the same without.
For Emma closes with “RE: Stacks”. Vernon has said the song is about what’s stacked against you and how you climb out. “In the back with your racks/ and you’re unstacking your load,” he sings in the chorus. It’s just him and the guitar again, finding a way to begin all over.
I had the incredible fortune to see Bon Iver play in Paris in 2011. After about half the set, I literally had to sit in a corner and listen with my head down so I could hear everything alone in my thoughts. I wasn’t the only one. On the way, I passed what seemed like an entire audience of tears, moved beyond recognition. In many ways, 2011 wasn’t any different than 2008, and 2008 isn’t that much different than today. You win some, you lose some. Your heart aches, then it heals. Bon Iver is not for everyone, but for those who are moved by this music, it’s quite often to a better place.