2007 Rerun: For Emma Forever Ago – Bon Iver

I have had so much difficulty in motivating myself to write about my 2008 rerun album this particular season, so I have decided to skip right to the album I chose for 2007 instead. Along with Radiohead’s In Rainbows (which I gave the top spot in my top 12 albums of the ’00’s and wrote about here), there is no question in my mind that the album of 2007 I’m most likely to ‘re-run’ is Bon Iver’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago. 

Not only did For Emma shape what we would expect from Justin Vernon and the rest of the Bon Iver crew, it also seemed to speak directly to our hearts (especially of the broken variety) through barely-comprehensible lyrics and sparsely produced acoustic guitar.  The truth is, we tend to love an album with a story, and this album has a particularly good one.  Vernon had hit rock bottom with both his romantic relationship, and his band at the time.  Carrying his grief and pain into solitude, he decided to process by moving to a secluded cabin to write, play, and record some songs.  The result: an album of intimately expressed and beautifully written tracks full of atmospheric tension.

The record begins with Flume, a song covered by none other than Peter Gabriel himself.  See what you think of that, here. I’m not sure what I think about understanding all the words in this song, since part of what draws me into the raw emotionalism of Bon Iver’s music is the way his Vernon’s voice makes it hard to make out the english words. There is a sense that the only language that is clearly being spoken is that of music, and when a word or phrase does break in to my consciousness, it becomes especially meaningful.  One of the clearest sounds in Flume is a muffled echo, reminding me that when grief is most poignant, sometimes nothing else sounds clear. 

Although Lump Sum begins with monkish motet-like harmonies, the song picks up with a faster pace, without losing the sadness that permeates the entire album.  The echoey sounds continue in the harmonies, and the song fades perfectly into Skinny Love, arguably the most popular song from For Emma…, and for good reason, since few break-up songs are able to so honestly hold in tension such raw emotion with thoughtful reflection.

The Wolves (Act I and II) slows down and emphasizes harmonies that remind me of Fleet Foxes.  It moves from being nearly the sparsest track on the album, to being the most dense, complete with a horn section and chaotic drum set solo, and finally returning to the sparse voice and guitar feel it began with.  I feel as though if I took a bit more time with this song, I would find all five stages of grief represented.  Someone else can do that though.  I’m moving on to my first love of this album: Blindsided.

Just this listen through, I realized was how clear Vernon’s vocals are on Blindsided.  It seems as though the only thing he can make sense of verbally is his feelings from being blindsided, and his continual reeling from the shock.

Creature Fear and Team are two songs that carry the most volume and energy on For Emma, but instead of coming across as angry, they sound confused and desperate.  Team is also the one lyric-less track on the album (though Vernon’s voice and whistle can still be heard), but I hardly notice this because of how Vernon treats his voice already like one of the instruments.

For Emma seems as though he has moved to a point of considering closure.  Don’t get me wrong; he’s still fairly bitter, (“Go find another lover… to string along”) but the relationship feels “forever ago”.  My favourite part of this song are the horns.  The strumming pattern gets old, but it does carry this sense of moving forward, one step at a time.  If the album ended here, I think it would sound like a fabricated happy(ish) ending, but luckily it does not.

Vernon ends with an “excavation” – Re:Stacks is a reflection that questions the entirety of his lost relationship.  He plays with the metaphor of gambling in a way that is full of both sadness and hope.  Hope, because there is a hint in the last line that the album itself is a part of the process towards moving on.  He may have hit rock bottom, but he knew exactly where to channel that painful, chaotic energy: into an album that wrestles with his fears and griefs vulnerably and honestly.  This is an album that I will return to, not only when I am at my worst, but perhaps especially when I am.

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