Skip to main content

Revisiting Classic Albums: Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago

I know what you’re thinking: That falsetto dude? The Manual’s classic albums series is young yet, but it wouldn’t be a proper grouping without a few provocative selections.

Bon Iver
Matt Kent/Getty Images

Bon Iver finds himself in some good company, what with Prince, The Boss, Herbie Hancock, and Pink Floyd for company so far. But hear me out, the Wisconsin musician’s debut is a breakup album for the ages.

Revisiting More Classic Albums

Part Thoreau, part Elliott Smith, For Emma, Forever Ago is both introspection and conscientious objection. Most of us have been through a shattered relationship and finding solace somewhere remote is not unique. Some of us too may even write some decent poetry or have an informed thought or too during this heart-wrenching stretch. Vernon fled to the backwoods with a guitar in hand and came away with an album that touches on every emotion, with little more than an acoustic guitar and a mic.

Keep in mind that Bon Iver wrote this album as a relative nobody. This was not a statement from an established artist nor an attention-grabbing shift from prominence to vulnerability. This was a heartbroken dude with a lot more talent than anybody realized, spilling his guts onto some parchment and hoping it would stick.
It wasn’t just a girl that dragged Vernon deep into the woods of northwestern Wisconsin. He was having some medical troubles as well, including mono and a liver infection. He was stuck in a bed for months and his former band had just given him the boot. The dude was in his mid-twenties, existentially depressed, had just broken up with his then girlfriend, and was basically killing time working at a sandwich shop and playing online poker. Enough was enough. He loaded up his car with his relatively small pile of musical equipment and headed for his dad’s hunting cabin.

bon iver jon emma forever
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What came next is quite remarkable. The story goes that Vernon mostly survived off of venison (which he hunted) and the occasional batch of provisions from his father (primarily some dairy and beer). At one point, a bear entered the cabin. This was 2006, when mobile phones were just starting to smarten up. Not everybody had them then and even if Vernon did, there was almost certainly no service in the remote abode. He just lived with his thoughts, some gamey meat, and a musical prowess earned from studying music in college and playing in a handful of bands.

To thicken his sound, Vernon went for a choir-inspired approach. Or, perhaps he was just lonely and needed some imaginary friends who could double as backing vocalists. Regardless, he started looping his own vocals, imparting harmonic richness without sacrificing the delicate nature of the songs and subject matter.

“Skinny Love” is probably the one hit to come out of the record’s nine tracks. It opens with the rhythmic twang of a guitar on the verge of out-of-tune, as though strummed with reckless abandon on the cabin porch. The song swells into a folk ballad that shows both Vernon’s vocal range and ability to engineer an explosive yet measured chorus. “Lump Sum” pulses like a flickering thunderstorm, the perfect backdrop for Vernon’s surprisingly soulful voice. And downtempo tracks like “The Wolves (Act I and II)” remind us of the particular brand of all-consuming peace that only comes from being in the woods.

Bon Iver - Skinny Love

The best song may just be “Creature Fear,” a ghostly piece of folk that bursts to life in spats of bliss. Vernon’s voice and trusty guitar harmonize beautifully in between percussion-backed melodic crests. Ultimately, it morphs into the more exploratory atmospheric soundscape of “Team,” backed by a military-like snare drum beat and whistling. It captures wisely the strangeness and eeriness of being solo in nature.

It’s not all shoe-gazing and self-loathing, of course. The record is actually peppered with lots of bright spots that peek out like January sun breaks. “For Emma” is a swaying, uplifting number and arguably the best track on the album. It’s powered by a love for an old partner made all the stronger through gained wisdom and retrospection. It’s adorned with shimmering horns and it marches into the sunset gracefully, like an old soul with very few regrets.

The record launched Vernon into indie fame and, in 2012, he would win a pair of Grammys. It’s practically implied that Bon Iver will at least get nominated now ever year they turn something out. Vernon is established to say the least, a modern American pop-rock ringleader who sells out arenas left and right. But it’s this formative first release that feels the most raw — a self-made launchpad made out of emotion, wafting rhythms, and a certain type of rustic poetry.

While it plays wonderfully any time of the year, For Emma, Forever Ago is especially fine in the winter. Its poignancy shimmers most in the company of naked tree branches and dark nights. Which makes sense, as the record was very much the product of this quivering time of the year. The music is soft but impossible to pull away from, like a dull wood fire during the coldest stretch of the evening.

Whether you’re looking to deal with a breakup or just want to feel a beautifully articulated lowness of spirit (which in turn will give you a better respect for all the highs), this record is a must. In the annals of contemporary music, it’s a modern classic, built of very little but oh so affecting.

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
10 amazing shows like The Bear to enjoy next
Are missing your drama/comedy binge sessions? Stream these series and get your fix
Jeremy Allen White as Carmy in The Bear

One of the best FX shows ever just finished its third season. If you're like us, you probably want even more of The Bear in your life after the drama/comedy wrapped up another 10 episodes of kitchen madness. Following the anxiety, excitement, and family bonds of Carmy Berzatto and his crew as they transform a Chicago sandwich restaurant into a fine dining experience, the series expertly mixes melancholy human elements with dark humor and deft filmmaking techniques like musical composition and montage.

The Bear doesn't really have many mirrors on television at the moment. Some shows share the series' high-octane dysfunction, while others possess the same type of camerawork and direction. If you're missing the Hulu series, we're here to round up the shows that are most similar to it in one way or another. These are the 10 shows like The Bear.

Read more
Best Apple Prime Day deals
A MacBook Air laptop on a desk.

Apple's devices don't come cheap, which is why there's always a lot of interest from shoppers on Apple Prime Day deals. Here's your chance to get some of Apple's products with huge discounts, not just from Amazon but also from other retailers. We've gathered our favorite Prime Day deals on the iPad, iPhone, AirPods, MacBook, and Apple Watch in one place so you won't have to keep jumping between websites, but you're still going to have to make a quick decision on what you'll purchase because there's no telling how much time is remaining before these bargains disappear.
Best iPad Prime Day deals

Apple popularized the tablet with its iPad, and it has since released additional lines -- namely, the iPad Air, the iPad Mini, and the iPad Pro. You'll be able to enjoy discounts when buying any of these models through the iPad Prime Day deals that we've rounded up, and there's no shortage of options because you can get previous-generation releases for even more affordable prices. You need to act fast though, as stocks for these iPads aren't expected to last long.

Read more
NYT Connections hints and answers for July 12, 2024
The logo for Connections.

From the people that bring you the crossword and Spelling Bee, Connections is the latest NYT Games sensation that has the internet abuzz. Although the game is still word-based, Connections is fundamentally different than many of the other games released by NYT Games and can be uniquely frustrating as a result. It tests your ability to group words together into coherent categories and presents a different challenge every time you play it. And, like Wordle and so many other NYT Games, you can share your results with friends and compare them as soon as you're done.

Connections is still in a sort of testing phase at the moment, but given the game's success to date, it seems clear that the game could have the kind of legs that make it a long-running success that people integrate into their everyday lives. Like Wordle, and unlike the crossword, it's a relatively quick game, which means that playing it doesn't have to eat up your entire day. That's part of the reason so many people have gotten devoted to it and why you may be seeing more Connections results in group chats and on your social media feeds than you were a few weeks ago.
How to play Connections
The premise of Connections is relatively straightforward. The game gives you 16 words that are totally unsorted, and your job is to sort those words into four categories of four. A group of words may be combined because they're all associated with another word or thing, like "car parts" for example, or because they have something else in common, like "ends with x." The categories can be almost anything, and the smart folks behind Connections work extra hard to make sure it's hard to file things away neatly into categories. There's plenty of ambiguity, which is why you get four wrong guesses before you lose the game.

Read more