Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Released July 8th, 2007
Before 2007, Justin Vernon was a folky college rocker with an obscure band (DeYarmond Edison) and a girlfriend. In 2006, after college ended, Vernon and the band moved to North Carolina; the band and the relationship both ended in short order, and Vernon was left with mono and a liver infection, as well as a frustration with songwriting, shitty jobs, and the creeping sense of mediocrity that was building in him at the age of 25. Rather than get a 9-5 and try to settle into obscurity, Vernon exiled himself to his father’s hunting cabin in remote Wisconsin and lived alone for a while, trying to find himself and a new way to write songs without crushing his spirit. He lived through three months of Wisconsin winter, hunting for food, chopping firewood, and at one point fending off a bear. Songwriting came along, developing out of ideas he’d had shortly before a wave of depression drowned everything; they were built out of simpler arrangements, and wordless melodies that were sung in a falsetto.
The eventual result was For Emma, Forever Ago, which Vernon self-released ten years ago today. Originally he’d emerged from the Great Midwestern Wilderness with nine songs and vague plans of using them as a demo to try to convince some label or another to give him money to record a slicker version of it. His stint as the touring guitarist with North Carolina band The Rosebuds convinced him that, much like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Vernon’s recordings already were an album. He released it as such, and he quickly began fielding offers from big indie labels. Everything that came after – the fame, the Grammy (“Who da fuck is Bonny Bear?”), the job as hook man for Kanye West – stems from this, a musical act of coming to terms with the past and the things you can’t get over. “Flume” was written just prior to his breaking up with his girlfriend and retreating to the wild – he claims that it’s the song that pushed him into going in the first place. The subsequent songs dwell in questions of love, of the direction of life, and the sense of being trapped; “Re: Stacks” makes reference to his being trapped in a cycle of online gambling.
I think that this album turning a decade old is the surest sign that I am, in fact, slowly growing old. When an album like Warehouse: Songs And Stories turns 30, it doesn’t hit me as hard because I was 5 when that album came out, and I came to it much later. For Emma, Forever Ago came out when I was 25, the same age as it’s creator, and it’s sense of creeping mediocrity spoke loudly to me. It still does, ten years on, and I hope that I can eventually come to terms with it in as glorious a fashion as Justin Vernon did.