I was first introduced to Bon Iver's music through a cover of "Skinny Love" that a mate of mine was playing at a gig. Although I didn't catch the whole song, even just a snippet of it was enough to make me want to get into this stuff - I was blown away by the power and depth of the songwriting, as well as the beautifully honest lyrics. And when I came to buying the album, I was far from disappointed - that particular song is still a stand-out, but the rest of the album is just as sublime.
Lyrically, "For Emma, Forever Ago" could be read as one long narrative, brimming with honesty, jealousy, guilt, love, loss, pain and a sense of loneliness which can only have come from the circumstances in which it was recorded - Justin Vernon, the mastermind behind the three-piece (though Vernon regularly plays solo as well), wrote and recorded practically the entire album with aged recording gear and a few microphones during 3 months spent absolutely alone in his father's hunting lodge in the woods of Wisconsin, USA. This time was originally going to be used exclusively for 'soul searching' and recovery from sickness and breakups (from both his band and girlfriend), though luckily for us it seems that the only way he was able to effectively channel his emotions was through songwriting and recording.
Even right from delicate opener "Flume," it is obvious that there has been no holding back in the writing of these songs - though often cryptic, there is no doubt that these lyrics are pure, unspoilt poetry - "Only love is all maroon / Lapping lakes like leery loons / Leaving rope burns - reddish ruse" may not be the most accessible refrain, but that is just not what this record is about. There is no shortage of pain here - "Now all your love is wasted / And who the hell was I?" he laments on "Skinny Love," but this is balanced with a rare sense of wisdom and self-awareness. Closer "Re:Stacks" is almost meditative - "This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization / It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away" is the closest that this album gets to optimism, but it is just as spellbinding as every other line on the record.
Musically, there are few comparisons that one could reasonably make with this album- vocally, Justin Vernon doesn't have the delicacy of Jeff Buckley (who seems to have somewhat unfairly become the unofficial benchmark for every male singer/songwriter on the planet), and the guitar work is nothing flashy, but one can not help but envy the obvious musical freedom that has been exercised during the making of this record - almost certainly due to the loneliness and isolation that he must have experienced during this time.
Because of this, the instrumentation is varied and flexible like nothing else I have ever heard before - the soundscapes range from understated yet innovative guitar ballads such as "Creature Fear" and "Blindsided" to lush choirs ("Lump Sum") to the sparse 'gospel-like' vocal arrangement on "The Wolves (Act 1&2)," a haunting masterpiece which eventually unfolds to become a thunderous, schizophrenic, beautiful mass of what could be literally hundreds of layered vocals, pounding acoustic guitars and rowdy percussion. Though even at it's musical 'biggest,' there is an all-pervading sense of poignant loneliness, or perhaps 'intimacy,' throughout the album - if you are anything like me, you will be constantly reminded of the fact that this record was made by a man completely isolated from the world. Though this is no bad thing - it only adds to the charm.
Overall, "For Emma, Forever Ago" reads like a revealing trip, both lyrically and musically, into Justin Vernon's troubled, world-weary mind. However, this is no pathetic, whiny, false attempt at honesty - this is a real, dynamic, vibrant masterpiece which will surely shape the next generation of songwriting.