Few back stories in recent memory live as much within the art they eventually created than those circumstances that lead Justin Vernon to his father’s hunting cabin in Northern Wisconsin. A dissolved love affair, a broken band, various life changes hell bent on destroying their target…Vernon never meant to record a master stroke when he retreated to a winter of solitude in the North Woods. Rather, his was a quest for a bit of personal peace…one that, true to the unexpected ways in which journeys of the heart tend to manifest themselves, yielded his stunning new album, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar).
Aptly titling the project Bon Iver – the French word for “good winter” (spelled incorrectly on purpose) – For Emma is initially startling…be prepared to freeze up in snow covered tracks the moment the first muted strokes of “Flume” press up against the ears. Singing “I am my mother’s only one/It’s enough”, Vernon cuts straight to the sheer delicacy of his existence. He belongs to someone. It may not be a relationship of the intimate variety, but that simple fact will do. And so begins Vernon’s very public healing process. On the soulful acoustic swinger “Skinny Love”, Vernon yelps “I told you to be patient/I told you to be fine/I told you to be balanced/I told you be kind” – lines that sound as if they are intended for someone else, but may actually be demands of a more personal nature. On “The Wolves (Act I and II)”, Vernon slays listeners with the song’s very first line (“Someday my pain will mark you”), all while simple sullen strokes of the guitar somehow evoke the tender ghost of Nick Drake. Then there is the album’s title track, “For Emma” – a conversation (though you wouldn’t know it without the lyric sheet’s helpful “him:” and “her:”) that offers up this piece of advice: ”For every life/Forgo the parable/Seek the light”. It’s simple, but speaks to (what I imagine were) Vernon’s intentions for heading into the wild. Forget the mystery and metaphors of life. Get on with it, and make of it what you will.
In the end, For Emma, Forever Ago might seem an act of self-therapy. Perhaps that is all Vernon ever intended the recording process to be. But listening on the other end, the album packs a potent push on the heart. Whether it’s the striking layered vocals, exaggerated to surreal, apparitional heights, the holy solitude of the guitar, or lifelorn melodies that rend and restore all at once…the songs that live here press the ticker into the deepest caverns of the chest. To that, add strands of hair that stand on end and a sea of tectonic goose bumps driven to new heights, and Vernon demands rather startling physical reactions out of his listeners. Could this have been achieved had the record been recorded in New York or Chicago? Perhaps. But the frost and the fire…the snow and the ice; time and place undoubtedly live on in For Emma, Forever Ago. In doing so, Bon Iver has blessed us all with a “good winter” of our very own. – David Pitz