For Emma, Ten Years Ago
For Emma, Ten Years Ago
By Alec Stern
Do you remember the part in The Dark Knight Rises where Batman surrenders?
If that doesn’t sound very familiar, it’s because it doesn’t happen in the conventional sense. He doesn’t walk out from hiding, hands raised, and allow himself to be taken by Bane and his henchmen. His surrender is of a different kind; he surrenders himself to something unknowable and unseen. After building up his strength from a broken back, he attempts time-after-time to make “the jump”; a physically impossible leap of faith from one ledge to another; the only way to freedom from The Pit he is imprisoned in. Every time he tries, he has a rope tied around his waist, preventing him from falling to his death when he unsurprisingly fails to make the jump. It isn’t until he ditches the rope, and jumps with no safety net (physical or metaphorical) that he succeeds and is able to escape. Just before he leaps, he closes his eyes for a brief moment. It’s a natural thing to do before a big moment, whether it is stepping out onstage or before saying something you know will have big consequences. We do this to calm ourselves, to focus, and sometimes, to offer up a quick prayer. The way I’ve always seen it, Batman is surrendering himself in that moment to something he has no control over. If he dies, he dies. But as a man, he is incapable of making that jump. He needs the assistance of something more divine; something that can either kill him, or set him free.
Ten years ago, Justin Vernon walked into a cabin as simply a man, and walked out a vessel of something bigger. This month marks the 10-year anniversary of the wide-release of his seminal debut as Bon Iver; the incandescent For Emma, Forever Ago. Few albums this century have been as written about as this one, and with the anniversary on the horizon, as well as a re-issue of the record itself and a homecoming show this weekend, the world at-large is revisiting this masterwork, once again trying to uncover its meaning, assessing its place within the larger cannon of American music, and exploring its pivotal effect on all of our lives. It is hard to think of another piece of art that has wedged its way into the hearts, minds, mouths, and fingers of so many people in such a profound and affecting way. People used this record as a lifeboat when struck with tragedy and crippling loneliness. Friends became lovers to this record. It was felt in the purest of isolation, as well as in major gatherings of strangers who had finally found something that felt like a part of themselves they never knew others also experienced.
When For Emma was released, there was some difficulty putting it in a genre. It was too folksy to really fit in with the indie rock movement of 2008, and was far too indie to be considered folk music. Some wanted to label it as a singer-songwriter record, which it is in many regards, but this felt entirely alien to that genre too. The record came with a legend of its birth; one that very few people have actually experienced in their lives, but so many of us have felt like we’ve gone through at the same time. The cabin represented a place in our hearts we have often retreated to when the sun goes down and the last embers of fire have blown away: when we are truly alone, and that isolation is deafening.
Its affects were felt immediately. Major artists attempted to emulate its sound. Men across the country grew scraggly beards, a stereotypical facade attributed to the rawness and integrity of their new hero. People set their first dances to “Skinny Love”, putting entirely too much emphasis on the latter word and not the former. By the time Kanye West got his number, Bon Iver had transcended music to the point where it became culture itself.
And yet, even with its presence felt everywhere, seemingly overnight, there has always been an elusiveness to this record that feels completely out of sync with the effects of it. Every time we think it can be understood, it bobs and weaves out of our grasp. We sing the lyrics, and get their beautiful phrases tattooed in handwritten script on our bodies, yet so few of us really even know the words, or what they mean (“My mile could not pump the plumb” for instance?) How is it possible that such an integral part of our lives, the soundtrack to our most felt moments as people, is something so foreign and difficult to wrap our heads around?
It’s because ten years ago, Justin Vernon surrendered.
None of us know what happened in that cabin in Wisconsin, and to be honest, I doubt Justin would even be the best person to really tell the world what happened. There were no cameras, no supporting players; nothing but the equipment he turned on to record, and shut off when he was done.
When I hear this record, I hear, in Justin’s own words on “Re:Stacks”, “the sound of the unlocking, and the lift away”. I hear the sound of a man who is truly creating something without interference of any kind, particularly from within. This record is completely devoid of the part in all of our brains that tells us what we do “isn’t”. Isn’t right, isn’t good enough, isn’t sensible, isn’t going to be a hit, isn’t going to be loved, isn’t going to make us loved. To concede to those internal thoughts is what makes us human: it’s the choice we all make without realizing it, and in a sense, it keeps us safe from the unknown and the uncomfortable. I think what has always made this album so alien, yet also so capable of canvasing the entire world with a raw and unfiltered human feeling, is that there is no choice on this record. There is no theory. I don’t hear decisions being made about structure, or tonality, or word-choice. I don’t hear thoughts about convention, or popularity, or phrasing, or song-lengths, or history, or perception by others. I hear the channeling of something else, coming through a man who has completely surrendered himself to it.
On For Emma, Justin never gets in the way. In a sense, Justin isn’t even on the record (if he had gone by his natural name, rather than a moniker, this record would not be what it is today. Bon Iver needed to be an idea and not a man). How else can we explain something like “Wolves”, where the howls at the end feel like the most human sound there is to make, while also sounding like nothing we have ever actually heard in our lives? How can we explain how much of a departure the lyrics are on this record, in terms of vocabulary, subject, and prose, to every other piece of music he had recorded prior to this? How do we explain the sudden appearance of his most signature calling card: his falsetto? To make a record like this, there needed to be no rope. There needed to be no influence from other people, from his own past, or from songwriting itself. It’s the sound of someone giving up control and letting something happen with no hesitation. That can only happen with a debut. That can only happen in isolation. And that is why, ten years later, it continues to be such an essential soundtrack to our human experience. It is a once-in-a-lifetime document of a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
Justin Vernon is a brilliant man and musician, and has since made two arguable masterpieces under the Bon Iver moniker. But this record will always be the one that stopped the world, and everyone in it in their tracks. It was the Good Winter that we all needed, and it will almost certainly be needed just as profoundly in this coming decade.