What Might Have Been Lost: Reflections on Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago

All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons

By John Siden

In 2006, Justin Vernon was not in a good place. His band DeYarmand Edison had broken up, he and his girlfriend had also split, and then he started to have bouts of pneumonia and mononucleosis.

In the wake of adversity, Vernon packed up his things, went home to his parent’s place, and then went to his father’s hunting cabin to escape and work on music in peace. While he didn’t plan to stay for long, in the end, Vernon ended up there for three months. Initially, Vernon didn’t get much done, but eventually, things started to form.

Vernon chose a new songwriting style for this music, writing wordless melodies and adding lyrics later on. The songs Vernon wrote were intended as stories as Bruce Springsteen inspired him. Being that Vernon was in the cabin during winter, that was an influence thematically. The album was released independently; although initially, Vernon thought of these as just demos, he was encouraged by musician friends to release it as is.

The band name was inspired somewhat by the phrase “Bon Hiver,” French for “Good Winter.” The album ended up being called For Emma, Forever Ago. Initially distributed through MySpace, Vernon eventually sent around a hundred copies out. This led to a bit of a bidding war, and Vernon chose to sign with indie label JagJaguar because he liked the label’s president Chris Swanson. In the end, For Emma, Forever Ago was well-received and ended on many best lists for the year.

All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons

For Emma, Forever Ago draws on many different influences, mostly not from the popular music of the time. One inspiration was Appalachian folk singers who sang in a falsetto, and this encouraged Vernon to try the same thing with these songs. The song “Flume,” the first song on the record, was also the first song written and the inspiration to go to the cabin in the first place. The singles released from this album were “Skinny Love,” “For Emma,” and “Re: Stacks.”

As previously mentioned, For Emma, Forever Ago starts with “Flume” with the lyrics, “I am my mother’s only one; it’s enough.” After all, Vernon had been through leading to this; it would seem that finally feeling like you are enough is a big thing. Next, we have “Lump Sum,” which opens with almost creepy choir-like vocals before a singular acoustic guitar starts strumming and Vernon chimes in. This song has a decent pace to it once it starts up.

Then we get to “Skinny Love;” this is an instantly catchy tune, and Vernon varies his vocals mid-song from falsetto to mid-range, which creates a nice dynamic. Vernon has said this song is about being in a relationship because you need help, and this makes it skinny. This was the first single and has been covered many times, most notably by the singer Birdy.

Side one is rounded out by “The Wolves (Act I and II).” After the almost pop feel of the previous track, this one is more downtempo, with slow guitar strumming with some double-tracked vocals. The song is about pain and blaming another person for it. It comes across as somewhat bitter; since this, in some ways, is a breakup album (band, girlfriend), it is not surprising the gauntlet of emotions covered in these songs is not surprising.

Side two kicks off with “Blindsided.” We hear more downtempo guitar kick off this track before some lovely vocals kick in. The sad bastard feel of the record continues, and interestingly in the bridge of this and the previous song, Vernon repeats one phrase repeatedly, “Will you really rush out?” And in “The Wolves (Act I and II),” Vernon sings, “What might have been lost,” making for a fascinating song structure.

The track “Creature Fear” follows, and the beginning is all soothing vocals with minimal guitar before Vernon starts in on the main verses. The vocals seem a bit cleaner, and the chorus picks up the pace before quickly slowing down once again. Next up is “Team,” which actually has a bassline and a pretty catchy one at that. Accompanied by some drums before the lead guitar starts, once again, the song structure changes and even includes some whistling.

We have reached the final two tracks: the single “For Emma” has a mid-tempo start which becomes grander after the first verse. The repeated chords in this song are pretty relaxing and consistently chug along. Wrapping up this record is “Re: Stacks,” the longest track on the album. This seems to sum up the record: pain and hitting rock bottom.

All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons

For Emma, Forever Ago is one of my favorite records to relax too. Despite the pain expressed, it’s still somehow soothing. I will mention that “Wisconsin” was a bonus track added to the iTunes version but not on vinyl or even streaming. Justin Vernon has gone on to an illustrious career with many outstanding records and side projects such as Volcano Choir and Big Red Machine. Vernon has also had guest spots on many artists’ songs, including Taylor Swift.

For Emma, Forever Ago stands out to me amongst all his work, and I feel the story behind its creation is part of that. It remains an integral part of his discography and an essential record in music history.

John Siden (@jake1967) is a columnist for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at john.siden391@gmail.com

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