For Emma, Forever Ago is one of the best albums of the twee era, hands down. And beyond its place within the 2010s soft indie universe, its musical quality has persisted as a modern classic. The record is beautiful, haunting, and unique. There’s simply nothing like it.
The album was actually first self-released in 2007, and was the debut studio album from American singer-songwriter Bon Iver. It was later picked up by Jagjaguwar in 2008 and was distributed through them.
When an album like this comes along, there’s always a bit of mystery surrounding it, but nothing like the actual story of how For Emma, Forever Ago came to be. Justin Vernon, the singer-songwriter behind the project of Bon Iver, wrote and recorded the entire album by himself in a log cabin about an hour northwest of his hometown in Raleigh, North Carolina. Detailing the process, he once said, “I felt very uninspired [in North Carolina]. I needed to get back. So I broke up with everybody, I broke up the band, I broke up with my girlfriend – broke free to do that.”
He headed to his father’s hunting cabin in the woods, which he had built in 1979, where Vernon would soon abandon his old songwriting methods in search of something new, which would later become his iconic album. He said of the cabin: “The cabin’s like a little alpine-style, timber-frame cabin, used to just have a dirt floor, but the last few years my dad’s made it … maybe too nice. Like there’s plumbing in it now. But there’s still that ancient vibe, because you’re so far away from everything.”
Here, Vernon became acclimated with the land. He chopped his own firewood and hunted for his food. In a way, he achieved the Thoreau experience that Thoreau himself didn’t even have. He isolated himself, and he did so without expectations. “I didn’t go up there to make a record,” he said. “But music was just part of the process of me ironing out that weird vibe inside me. I sat down and started working on the songs, layering vocals on top of vocals, trying to be a choir. That’s how almost every lyric on the album was written, in that weird, subconscious back-door way.”
When listening to the album, you can almost picture him doing exactly that. The sound of his voice piled on into this wavy choir-sounding angelic half-mess, it all makes sense under this vision.
One thing that has always made sense to me as a listener, as someone who heard ‘Skinny Love’ and ‘Re: Stacks’ in middle school, latching onto them like a security blanket in the northeast winters, is that For Emma, Forever Ago just is a winter album. It has that cosy yet melancholy aura that makes it so. And Vernon confirms that without the wintertime all around him, the album would have been a different creature entirely. “In the winter, it’s more like this lengthy, beautiful thing. It’s more inquisitive; winter is a time of internal thinking for me.”
Venturing off into the woods isn’t everyone’s thing, but I, for one, am glad that Bon Iver gave it a try, as it clearly birthed a masterpiece.