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Forgoing the parables: The legacy of Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It sure seems like forever ago that Justin Vernon walked into the Wisconsin woods and emerged with an album that would make him the closest thing indie rock has to a household name. Feb. 19 marks ten years since the wide release of “For Emma, Forever Ago,” Vernon’s debut album as Bon Iver. If you’ve managed to go the last decade without hearing this album’s backstory, in brief: Amidst the dissolution of his band and his relationship, Vernon retreated to his father’s hunting cabin in late 2006, spending three months in the bitter Wisconsin winter. In his self-imposed exile, Vernon hunted game, watched old episodes of “Northern Exposure” and recorded nine spectral, insular sketches of songs. Months later, Vernon would rechristen himself “Bon Iver” (derived from the French bon hiver, “good winter”) and self-release these demos as “For Emma” in 2007. The album was passed along through word-of-mouth, catching the ear of music blogs and record labels alike, all of whom heaped praise upon Vernon’s recordings. Ultimately, Vernon signed with the independent label Jagjaguwar, who gave the album a wide release in February of 2008. With Bon Iver reissuing a limited edition of the album today for its tenth anniversary, it’s a fitting time to reflect on the album’s legacy as an indie classic.

Though Vernon would distance himself from the genre in his subsequent recordings, “For Emma” is heavily indebted to folk music, which was one of the primary styles of the mid-2000s indie scene. (See also: Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes, whose 2008 self-titled album arguably marked a peak of the movement, alongside “For Emma.”) Still, nothing sounded quite like the album or has sounded like it since. The low fidelity of the recordings gives Vernon’s acoustic guitar a natural, full reverb that helps flesh out songs like “Flume” and “Skinny Love.” But there’s more to the album than just Vernon and his acoustic guitar; it’s subtle, but you can hear bass, organ and Mellotron knocking around in the background of some tracks. It gets loud on “Creature Fear” and “For Emma” (the track), which employ electric guitars, drums and brass. While these noisier elements are anomalous, they don’t break the album’s spell of solitude, even if they were added after Vernon returned to civilization.

But “For Emma” draws most of its power from Vernon’s voice and how he uses it. Vernon sings in a cracked, aching falsetto for much of the album, somehow hitting notes that he shouldn’t be able to. By layering several tracks of his singing together, each a bit different from the last, Vernon creates his own vocal choir. It’s used to splendid effect on “Lump Sum,” where Vernon’s voice sounds like water running under the track, as well as on the hair-raising climax of “The Wolves (Act I and II).” Even on relatively spare tracks like “Blindsided” and “re: stacks,” Vernon multi-tracks his vocals, effectively singing along with himself.

That said, Vernon’s singing style, along with the fidelity of the recordings, can make it difficult to hear the lyrics. Once Vernon’s words are discerned though, they reveal a wide landscape of different lyrical styles. Sometimes he’s strikingly direct: “And now all your love is wasted / And then who the hell was I?” he howls in the chorus of “Skinny Love.” Other times, the lyrics are couched in natural imagery or reflect the environment, as on “Flume” (“Gluey feathers on a flume / “Sky is womb and she’s the moon”) and “Blindsided” (“Taught line, down to the shoreline / The end of a bloodline, the moon is a cold light”). You wouldn’t know this just by listening, but the lyrics to the pseudo-title track are written like dialogue, like a scene in a play where a long-suffering couple finally calls it quits. But for all the album’s reputation as a breakup album, “For Emma” has very few lyrics that could be called confessional. It’s wounded and soulful, but Vernon avoids specificity; he has confessed that the titular “Emma” was inspired by a person, yet the name stands for a greater kind of pain. It’s an evocative and impressionistic portrait of melancholy, occasionally shot through with vindictiveness (“Someday my pain / Will mark you”), ending with quiet acceptance. (“re: stacks” is a fitting conclusion, though it’s uncertain if the reissue will add “Wisconsin”, a haunting coda with a mantra that changes ever so slightly each time: “love is love’s reprieve,” “love is love’s mystique,” “love is love’s critique.”)

Since “For Emma,” Vernon has become one of modern music’s most versatile, vital figures. He’s put out an EP and two more albums, each one more refined but no less intimate than the last. His self-titled sophomore record, released in 2011, got him invited to the following year’s Grammys, where he picked up two awards and a hilarious new nickname. He’s dabbled in several different styles of music as a member of Volcano Choir, Gayngs and the Shouting Matches, though the latter two projects were essentially one-offs. He helped curate a new music festival in Wisconsin, featuring some of the biggest names in indie music — several of whom have collaborated with him in the past. (Kanye West has yet to grace Eaux Claires with his presence, unfortunately.)

To expand on that last point, Stereogum made this family tree a few years ago linking Vernon to every notable musician he has some association with, as well as who they have been associated with. While ostensibly meant to show how well-connected Vernon is in the music world — he’s something of an indie Kevin Bacon — the diagram underscores a strange paradox: For all the musicians who Vernon has been in the studio with, it’s difficult to say which ones clearly reflect Bon Iver’s sound in their own, and even more difficult to say which if any in turn influence Bon Iver. Vernon, it seems, is Bon Iver’s primary — if not only — influence.

Perhaps that’s why this project has such a limited output. In ten years, Bon Iver’s recorded output clocks in at just under two and a half hours. Vernon rarely revisits sounds he has mined in the past, and while every Bon Iver album is a sea change from its predecessor — from the elemental “For Emma” to the dreamlike “Bon Iver” to the glitchy “22, A Million” — virtually every song has its own distinct sonic flavor. (During Bon Iver’s hiatus after the self-titled album, a friend once joked that Bon Iver’s next album would be a “straight hip-hop album.” That wasn’t the case, but there’s always next time.) The pressure Vernon puts on himself to constantly reinvent Bon Iver from album to album must be nothing less than hellish, threatening to strangle his creativity and reduce him to a nervous breakdown in a friend’s arms. It has also led him to produce some of the most transcendent, beautiful music of the last decade.

Bon Iver’s origin story has been repeated past the point of cliché, but then again, all archetypes begin as clichés: Vernon left that cabin long ago, but in some ways it never fully left him. Vernon went on to write songs like “Holocene” and “29 #Strafford APTS” that were full of lush instrumentation, but at their heart, these songs would be every bit as affecting if stripped down to just Vernon and his acoustic guitar. They’re songs about reckoning with feelings of heartbreak, desolation and self-doubt. They’re songs about searching for something more. As much as Vernon was fleeing from something when he went into the woods, he must have felt that he was stumbling toward something else.

Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Jacob Nierenberg

Jacob Nierenberg

Jacob Nierenberg '17 is a coterm pursuing an M.A. in Communication on the Journalism track. The program is very busy and often precludes him from writing for The Daily, but he enjoys contributing stories and music reviews when he is able to. Prior to beginning the program, he completed a B.A. in American Studies. His hobbies include spending time with friends and listening to music, and he is always delighted to meet people as enthusiastic about music as he is.