Secret Meeting score: 90
Following the announcement of his Big Red Machine project with The National’s Aaron Dessner, Justin Vernon and his glorious voice were very much back in the public’s conscious this week. But go back a decade, and Vernon’s voice – along with his heartbreakingly brilliant songwriting – were being discovered by many for the first time, through the release of his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, under his Bon Iver monkier.
Having spent the harsh winter of 2006 at his dad’s hunting cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin, the recording process has been much mythicised. In 2008, he told The Daily Telegraph, it was ‘an opportunity to escape the trap of society, to not pay bills, to play music and live really cheaply.’ But what was intended to be a short stay, turned into a creative three month burst of writing and recording- with the achingly lonely setting metaphorically representative of the stark, emotional beauty of the album.
To summarise For Emma, Forever Ago as simply a desolate portrayal of Justin Vernon’s depression, however, would be a monumental understatement. It is indeed an album on which Vernon captures the heart aching torment of feeling stuck in a place you do not want to be, and is the most magnificent demonstration of the creative drive that such disorder can spark. But more so, it is the musings of a man completely ruined- having financially gambled away his previous earnings following his breakup from partner, Sarah – middle name Emma (who is one of a number of muses that inspired the record), and a document of the suffering that the physical torment of a liver condition exacerbated by his increased alcohol consumption.
Joseph Purcell: Flume and Blindsided
Flume is the archetypal early folk sound of Bon Iver, before the vocal sorcery and the fantastic tapestry of sound he went onto weave on subsequent albums. This is Justin Vernon stripped back and at his finest. It is the opening track on an album that, had it been Vernon’s only release, would have assured his position as one of our most eminent musicians, and is certainly an album that endless artists have attempted and failed miserably to recreate.
The gentle oozing ambient guitar of Flume welcomes you into For Emma, Forever Ago- an album of incredible beauty, grace and heartache. From the opening lines, ‘I am my mother’s only one, it’s enough’, to the touching ‘Only love is all Maroon’, Flume is a track that feels familiar and comforting to the ear – even on first listen – such is Vernon’s astute ear for flawless melodic phrasing. Vernon’s voice is impeccable and cascading throughout, and is the centrepiece over his hollow, echoed guitar. It is simple yet intricate, minimal yet vast. This was the first Bon Iver track I listened to after being recommended the album many years ago and – despite the wondrous works he has gone onto produce since to this day, particularly on his second LP, Bon Iver, Bon Iver – it remains my favourite.
Blindsided is another standout on an album of highlights. It builds effortlessly over a single repeated note, from a serene calmness before plateauing into a serene soundscape- with Vernon’s understated, fragile voice moving up to the top of his falsetto register in a swamp of tangled, layered backing vocals. One of his many gifts is his ability to use his voice as another instrument that dictates the flow of his songs, and across these five luscious minutes the intricate build entwines with his voice to become one moving landscape.
Phil Scarisbrick: Skinny Love
Skinny Love was the first single released from the album and probably remains Vernon’s most instantly recognisable song. Though much of the album’s thread focuses on the fallout of the end a relationship, Vernon explains that this song also addresses a broader theme- “It’s about that time in a relationship that I was going through; you’re in a relationship because you need help, but that’s not necessarily why you should be in a relationship. And that’s skinny.”
From the opening strums of the steel resonator guitar and Vernon’s flawless falsetto, the song is drenched in nuanced hooks. He has always had the ability to be highly emotive with his vocal delivery and this song is no different. The fragile falsetto of the verses gives way to the angry, heartbroken bawl of the chorus. This anger, projecting the blame onto his former lover (‘And I told you to be patient/And I told you to be fine/And I told you to be balanced/And I told you to be kind’) is nothing more than a thinly-veiled, self-deception as he follows up with the lines- ‘And in the morning I’ll be with you/ But it will be a different kind/ And I’ll be holding all the tickets/ And you’ll be owning all the fines’.
Philip Moss: For Emma
Despite the overarching sparse sound of much of the record, For Emma, which adopts only half of the album’s title features a far more embellished arrangement. But despite, the fluttering of Zach Condon-evoking horns (overdubbed by Vernon’s Boston based friends, John DeHaven and Randy Pingrey), its lyrical content – a conversation according to the sleeve notes, simply between ‘him’ and ‘her’ – is as equally melancholic.
‘I toured the light- so many foreign roads for Emma, forever ago’, the song closes – emphasising, as Vernon has himself clarified, that Emma is not so much a person, but ‘a place that you get stuck in… a pain that you can’t erase.’ And it’s a pain that is felt in every vocal take and every acoustic strum on this ever so special record.
Mark Jackson: re:stacks
For Emma, Forever Ago is an album that I play regularly – whether travelling, exercising or meditating. At times, it is deeply relaxing, and at others it is empowering and energising, therefore, it can sonically lend itself to many endeavours. It is an album, however, that I never play in the company of others, as its real beauty lies in its command of attention. For Emma, Forever Ago is a record that rewards repeated listens, and ends having fashioned a deep sense of contentedness and gratitude.
Vernon does substantive lavish musicality like few others – Bon Iver’s most recent 22, A Million, as well as a back catalogue of collaborations with Kanye West, James Blake and, most recently, The National’s Aaron Dessner, are all working demonstrations of this point. Similarly, he holds the blueprint for curating seemingly simple acoustic strums with multi-layered falsetto vocals – and nowhere is this more beautifully displayed than on For Emma’s closing title, re:stacks. It is a stunning collection of oblique metaphors about losing everything: financially, physically and emotionally – ‘Keep throwing it down, two hundred at a time, it’s hard to find it when you knew it, when your money’s gone, and you’re drunk as hell.’ re:stacks also consolidates the isolated depression induced by Vernon’s relationship breakdown as documented throughout the record – ‘and the fountain in the front yard is rusted out, all my love was down, in a frozen ground’.
In spite of the bleak landscape that is painted throughout the record, re:stacks final words leave a hopeful, somewhat mindful self-actualisation that helps cement the song as the album’s most important, beyond its melodic intelligence. ‘This is not the sound of a new man, or crispy realisation. It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away, your love will be safe with me’ – Vernon’s self-imposed imprisonment may actually have helped his recovery and we end with a more hopeful and resolved emotional consciousness.