Justin Vernon had a tough 2006. His band broke up and his girlfriend moved on without him. Then he got mono. Faced with all these trials, he did what many of us would do and moved back home to Wisconsin. Then he decided to spend 3 months alone in a cabin in northern Wisconsin over the winter to sort of “de-tox” himself from the sad events. While there, he cobbled together an album unlike any he’d ever recorded. With a couple of mics and a guitar, he recorded For Emma, Forever Ago. As you listen to the album, you can’t help but feel the pain that Vernon felt while writing and recording it. His voice is strained, shrill, melancholy and eerily overdubbed. His guitars are chopped and picked clean. Yet, he makes so much of so little. He released the record independently in the summer of 2007. Eventually, the record was picked up by a label and issued in early 2008.
The record is a study in asceticism. When you strip away all the trappings of normal life and retreat to a sequestered cabin with your painful memories and unresolved feelings, this is the sort of thing that is purged out of you. Though none of us listening to the recording have experienced the same emotional traumas as Vernon, we co-opt his wails and ascribe them to our own struggles. I didn’t deal with any major calamities in 2008, but I felt that this album was a representation of a dark night of the soul that everyone experiences and therefore I wrote myself into the narrative anyway.
I was able to see Bon Iver live in 2008 at The Current’s Rock the Garden festival at the Walker Art Center. I remember wondering how an intimate and hushed record like this one would translate to the stage. Vernon, with a few supporting musicians, channeled his pain perfectly to the audience and left them satisfied with the journey through despair into hope. Winter into spring.
As the summer wore on and the record drifted from my playlist, I began to wonder about the future of Bon Iver. This album is so indelibly tied to the cabin in the woods that I’m skeptical that Vernon can produce another record of equal impact. What would he do next? Vernon wisely released an EP of 4 songs in 2009 that built on the sound of For Emma…, but moved beyond the sonic boundaries of the cabin. He then began collaborating with other musicians in experimental music. He is a member of Volcano Choir and appears on the newly released album by Twin Cities supergroup Gayngs. It seems that his isolation has given way to a desire to be part of a community again and perhaps that desire will perfect itself on a new Bon Iver record in the future. Though I think Justin Vernon’s lasting legacy will be his plaintive cries heard through the frosted windows of a cabin in the woods.