For Emma, Forever Ago – A Retrospective

Ten years and ten days ago, the enchanting For Emma, Forever Ago was self-released by a then unknown Justin Vernon, under the guise of Bon Iver. Re-released a year later by Jagjaguwar, the album marked a surprising success story for independent music production. After splitting with his band DeYarmond Edison, and still haunted by the aftermath of a difficult break up with a former girlfriend, Vernon retreated to his father’s remote hunting cabin, isolating himself within the icy claws of a harsh Wisconsin winter. It was in this state of enforced regression that Vernon recorded a set of nine songs that were as desolating and inhabitable as his harsh surroundings.

Capturing the hearts of audiences worldwide with its insurmountable humility and simplicity, FEFA propelled Bon Iver to unexpected levels of stardom from the depths of absolute solitude. Consistently ranked amongst the greatest albums of the 21st Century, Vernon’s solo debut achieved feats in experimentation that, in my opinion, his subsequent albums, Bon Iver and 22, A Million, have been unable to match. An album of restraint, purity, conflict, resolution and despair, FEFA is still as engrossing and mysterious a listen 10 years on.

I distinctly remember the first time I listened to this enchanting record, such is its immediate penetrating impact, and how I – as a naïve 16-year-old –  was quite unprepared for what I was about to hear. It is an album that really requires no distractions. It belongs to a different world and I have never found it possible to listen to it with the attention it deserves while stuck in this one. Practically recorded in an oversized bedroom, there is no over-indulgence in the perfectly balanced production, and there is not a single lyric wasted; Vernon says no more and no less than is exactly necessary and leaves you with that burning sensation of wanting to ask a question but having none to ask. This is even more poignant when considering how difficult it is to decipher what Vernon is even saying, let alone what his cryptic lyrics actually mean. But this is emblematic of FEFA as a whole; the lyrics matter less than the sorrowful strain of their melodies, as the music talks to you and expresses a pain and loss in ways that words simply could not.

An honest album, FEFA’s fragilities are its strengths. The often muted and discordant guitar chords feel raw and authentic. The recording techniques of multiple vocal lines that Vernon plays with feel like natural extensions of his disconnection, each layered melody offering a new experience with every listen. The strained falsettos he sings with hint at an agony not overcome, a broken voice delicately tip-toeing around its subject, afraid to come to an unalterable resolution. They are as haunting as FEFA’s disquieting album cover, and as they endlessly overlap, they build up into the Vernon choir. You don’t really notice it at first; with modern music, we’re used to hearing lots of little elements within songs stacked on top of one another, blending together until each individual part becomes lost to the background. But Vernon recreates that effect with just his voice, and never allows you to settle by placing you in between the various vocal lines. And with all these harrowing voices pining from every angle, you feel like an intruder in what Vernon described as a “small internal dialogue between me and the microphone”. Because of this, I have always found a transgressive element accompanies the act of listening to FEFA. But, in all honesty, it has never felt so good to eavesdrop.

FEFA’s order is also part of its beauty. With some albums, you feel like you could switch tracks around without too greatly compromising the overall project. But I genuinely believe that to alter FEFA’s track listing would be to undermine its whole point. FEFA is not simply nine individual songs lumped together; to me, it is one 37-minute-long song that happens to have eight breaks in it, essential for you to breathe and recover before delving further into the album. For example, it is only with the unsettling muted opening guitar chords of ‘Flume’ that we fully comprehend the tone of the album we are about to expose ourselves to. Likewise, it is only with this hesitant album opener that ‘Lump Sum’ can arrive to race you further away from reality and into a mind that is not simply gloomy but characterised by an excitability yet also an inability to find an appropriate output for that energy. In a similar fashion, ‘Skinny Love’ – perhaps the closest the album comes to pop – hooks you with its emotive stampede, yet is immediately contrasted with the slow, rubato lullaby of ‘The Wolves (Act I and II)’. Here, the multi tracking of vocals, with a strong alto and a piercing falsetto melody combine to produce an oppressive volume to Vernon’s voice, screaming “don’t bother me” to remind us we really shouldn’t be here.

I often find the album turns in terms of its outlook somewhere within the five and a half minutes of ‘Blindsided’. Building perfectly, the chorus to ‘Blindsided’ is pure emotion, making you want to break up with a boyfriend/girlfriend you may not even have. Followed by the sliding hums of ‘Creature Fear’ – sounding like some distorted version of a Hawaiian beach – and the descent into the regimental instrumental of ‘Team’, it only feels right that ‘For Emma’ introduces a horn section and a new level of volume. Like some orgasmic release of pent up emotional energy, ‘For Emma’ provides a bittersweet peak without abandoning the overall raw tone. In the aftermath, we are treated to ‘re:stacks’, the album’s sombre finale. Lulled into hibernation by its beautiful open D chord exchanges and crooning melodies, the 40 seconds of near silence that conclude both the track and the album, where Vernon relinquishes his guitar and walks away from the microphone, make you truly think about what your ears have just witnessed.

“Emma isn’t a person. Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma’s a pain that you can’t erase”. Vernon’s words are again perfect to describe an album that is much introspective as it is an exploration of the relationships that make us human. Looking back a decade later, it’s clear to see that For Emma, Forever Ago remains trapped temporarily and geographically inside the isolated cabin that Vernon recorded it in- a tiny piece of his soul hidden away, open to the public, yet immovable.

Robert Cairns