Someday My Pain

For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver

I was feeling slightly hesitant to write this review. I started listening to Bon Iver soon after Justin Vernon released For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008, but I never bothered to listen closely until this week. And then last night maybe I listened too closely.

Most of what Vernon sings tends to be unintelligible. His layered vocals blend words together, so that what you're left with are sounds bleeding into melodies. And this is intentional; when writing the songs, melodies were written first and words were chosen to accommodate them. When I first listened to For Emma, Forever Ago, I felt very little need to know what he was singing; I preferred making up words for the ones I didn't know if I felt like singing along, and was mostly fascinated with the expression in the words rather than drawing meaning out of them.

But last night, for reasons unknown, I suddenly decided to look up the lyrics. On the whole, Vernon knows his way around words; and yet, after reading the lyrics, I was mostly left feeling disappointed. (I'll chalk this up to me becoming extremely nit-picky as I near a musical dry spell. The closer I get to the dry spell, the pickier I become.)

"Flume", the opening track, hides behind the lyrics "Only love is all maroon/Lapping lakes like leery loons/Leaving rope burns, reddish ruse". "Lump Sum" seems to be a reference to his decision to move back to Wisconsin and his need to recuperate. Most of the songs on the album, aside from "Skinny Love", are beautifully descriptive but frustratingly cryptic. As if to explain this, Vernon's last track, "RE: Stacks" ends with "This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization/It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away".

I don't mean to imply that Vernon sacrificed meaning for sound (though there's nothing wrong with that either). Instead, these songs live in a place in between ambiguity and poetry. Though Vernon's imagery is wonderfully descriptive and poetic, their meanings weigh less than the weight of their sound deliverance.

For Emma, Forever Ago is the product of Vernon's decision to sequester himself in a cabin in Wisconsin for three months in an effort to deal with the events of the previous year. Though not initially intending to write an album, Vernon ended up writing and recording most of the songs on the album, and releasing it by himself. In this sense, having such beautifully cryptic lyrics makes sense — the album comes across as "the sound of a man left alone with his memories and a guitar". The album serves to expose those memories without actually relinquishing them.

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