Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

Question: Why would anyone sequester themselves for four winter months in a Wisconsin cabin?

To many, the thought may be entertaining for a long-weekend, but four months? I would imagine most of us would be itching for internet access and "in-network" cell phone service by Sunday. Longing for our connection to the rest of world. Justin Vernon did just that though; locking himself away for an entire winter to write and record the songs that would ultimately become For Emma, Forever Ago.

The aforementioned album is Vernon's first under the Bon Iver tag, and feels as bare (both musically and emotionally) as the recording conditions would suggest. On the surface, For Emma is textbook singer-songwriter/heart on your sleeve fare (i.e. songs of heartbreak, recorded with little more than a rusty acoustic guitar). The album carries something intangible though. An underlying sense of integrity. This sentiment that the songs are natural in their foundation, rooted in the most organic form of emotion. It is this unspoken element that sets Emma apart from the ever-growing group of coffeehouse troubadours, roaming from city to city with a guitar strapped to their back, and a notebook under their arms.

Thematically, Emma is somber, but ultimately hopeful. It is almost as if Vernon purged his heart of the myriad emotions that would accompany a breakup, and then laid them all out on tape to rid them from his system. The album is littered with open-ended questions and remarks, presumably directed at lovers past (collectively represented by Emma), but also to himself: "Would you really rush out for me now?", "Now all your love is wasted, then who the hell was I?", "Go find another string along", "Who will love you? Who will fight? Who will fall far behind?" The minimalist arrangements allow for these soul searchers to burn into the songs, searing the record with equal parts self-doubt and personal inventory. However, in just a little under 40 minutes, as the album fades to silence, we are left with a moment of clarity. An understanding that what we went through is over, but was not in vain ("This is not the sound of a new man, or a crispy realization. It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away. Your love will be safe with me").

You never get the feeling that Vernon is patiently awaiting his former love(s) to return. Rather, just hoping to sort life out, and ultimately get back to square one. Make himself whole again. Re-hashing the past not to dwell on what was lost, but more so to absolve himself of the weight of that loss. This allows Vernon to archive the good days off into a deep corner, and move on with something to show for it besides the scrapes and scars of a failed relationship.

This is perhaps what allows For Emma, Forever Ago to be a quintessential break-up album. It recognizes the faults of lost love, but also looks to preserve what made it so great in the first place. In the end, it is a convoluted life lesson, but a lesson nonetheless. Emma (or rather Vernon) teaches us that, by losing everything, we are forced to find the only true constant in our lives: ourselves.

Answer: To get it all back.

- Jameson


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