Bon Iver is arguably one of the most influential and pioneering figures within modern music. I find it odd writing such a thing particularly as Bon Iver’s music is often attributed to the genre of folk, a genre which is often forgotten and all too easily dismissed.
Nevertheless, lead singer Justin Vernon is, in my eyes, a pioneer. To quote an unexpected collaborator, Kanye West: ‘I love Justin Vernon‘. Kanye’s opinions in recent years have most definitely been questionable, but you can definitely trust his judgement on Bon Iver.
To date, Bon Iver have been nominated for five Grammys and won two: Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album. Yet this success would not have been possible had it not been for Justin Vernon’s much-loved masterpiece: Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Admittedly, like my previous album of the week, I cannot pretend to have been an original fan of Bon Iver; in 2007, the year of For Emma, Forever Ago‘s release I was only eight years old. However, I distinctly remember my first encounter with the album, courtesy of my brother. It was 2012, I had just been gifted a Blackberry Curve, and BBM was all the rage. My brother and I were both sat in the kitchen, him on the AUX. Over the speakers came the ever-so-recognisable acoustic guitar, followed by raw, emotive vocals, encapsulating so many feelings in just a few notes: Skinny Love, the lead single from the album, was playing and from that moment on I was hooked. Shortly afterwards I downloaded Skinny Love and the rest of the album to my Blackberry.
Raw and emotive are two words which aptly describe this album, written by Justin Vernon in isolation during the winter of 2006 at his father’s hunting cabin in Wisconsin, following the breakup of his band and relationship with his girlfriend. Listening to the album, you can hear the isolation in Vernon’s voice and relate to his emotional turmoil. His haunting, almost tear-invoking falsetto vocals, entwined with acoustic guitar and heavy choral arrangements make the album in my eyes a masterpiece.
The opening verses of the album from ‘Flume’ creates a cathartic feeling which resonates throughout the rest of the record:
I am my mother’s only one
I wear my garment so it shows
Now you know.’
Accompanied by an ambient, sombre guitar and flawless vocals, the verse gives you a direct insight into Vernon’s headspace; the feeling of abandonment and lost love, two of the key themes within this album, are very pertinent.
If you were hoping for a cheery, uplifting Album of the Week then this is not it. Nevertheless, once you listen to For Emma Forever Ago you will be in awe of Vernon’s songwriting and production capabilities. The album is now twelve years old, but I can’t think of an album which is no more apt for heartbreak or if you are feeling down. Despite the inner torment vocalised by Vernon, it is easy to find an air of peace within the music. On listening to the album all the way through you feel like you are accompanying Justin through his therapy before reaching contentment.
As stated earlier, this album was the start of the journey for Bon Iver and it was no fluke, with the follow up album Bon Iver, Bon Iver winning a Grammy. His third album 22, A Million incorporated techniques and pioneering software Vernon worked on when collaborating with Kanye West. Again, it was met with wide critical acclaim.
Let’s not forget where it all started.