I’ll start off by saying that this is the album that got me through the toughest time of my life. This was when I was in my last year of high school with final exams and relationships between friends, family, and many others crumbling before my eyes. But all of this was also during COVID lockdown, so my mental health was another significant detriment that tied into these difficulties. After my first few listens of this album, I dug into Bon Iver’s discography and fell in love the band. They quickly became one of my favourite artists of all time.
This is an example of a stripped back album executed perfectly. You feel a sense of coziness as soon as those first few guitar chords hit, and somehow from the album cover alone. It immediately puts you in a cold, isolated, winter cabin, which is exactly what Justin Vernon did to make this album. All I can imagine is him alone inside this cabin, with its surroundings nothing but the wintery freeze of nature, and it’s made to make you feel the same.
This isolation results in songwriting that’s incredibly intimate. It captures the essence of Vernon’s experiences during the time of writing, and translates it into such a raw form to the listener. The stripped back, minimalistic production is as appropriate as ever for an album like this. It expresses and encompasses so many things that contrast each other, but also complement each other through the music. Themes of isolation, loneliness, intimacy, sadness, and pain all tie-in together to create the essence of For Emma, Forever Ago.
These themes are conveyed by pure and raw emotion through Vernon’s incredible musical ability, and emotional lyricism. Vernon’s now iconic falsetto voice is so touching, and when he stretches his vocal limit (like on Skinny Love), he sets the tone of the album in motion. Many of the tracks here are delivered as raw as possible so that the listener can fill the remaining empty space with emotions that arise from the sounds of this record.
I believe that the one key ability that he has, is to make the listener think. To make the listener think about their past, present and future, the things in life that have occurred, are occurring, and might occur sometime down the line, and to reflect on the emotions that flow through the mind during these experiences.
While I consider this album to be flawless, the songs Flume, The Wolves (Act I and II), and Re: Stacks are my personal favourites. Flume is an incredible way to begin an album like this. The harmonies, the chords, and the classic folky instrumentals that has the beautiful chord progressions and soft thumping kick drum, which is in contrast to the sharp, string-sounding instrument during the verse. The Wolves (Act I and II) is an emotional display of pain, with the end of the track crescendoing into pure chaos, as if Vernon is destroying his cabin out of raw anger and hurt. And the minimalism and simplistic nature of Re: Stacks serves as a perfect closer to such an emotionally demanding album, and is sure to keep you at ease. It also contains one of my favourite Bon Iver lyrics: “this is not the sound of a new man or a crispy realisation.”
For Emma, Forever Ago is a beautiful representation of the difficulties that we experience during life. It conveys emotion as raw as ever, and allows the listener to connect with the lyrics and stripped back instrumentals. Vernon expresses his own experiences of isolation, loneliness, and pain through these musical aspects in the most intimate way. Ultimately though, this ability to encompass such harsh themes but deliver them in ways that complement each other, and provide warmth and comfort to the listener is what makes For Emma, Forever Ago so special.