Bon Iver is a legend of the unknown, and a relatively unknown legend. In 2006/07, Justin Vernon went into the forested wilderness of Midwest America and came back with an album so chilling, melancholy, and soberingly lonesome that it would alter popular music. For Emma, Forever Ago is perhaps the first album I remember listening to in full, no skipping, no sliding, just listening. It was the perfect album for my high school self, growing up just across Lake Michigan from where the album was being created. It is Midwestern solidarity in sound, and it launched Vernon’s career as a pioneer of minimalistic music, letting the ambience of tracks accompany the poetic lyrics.
There aren’t many albums that can make you feel like you’re in the room, right there as it’s being made, but For Emma, Forever Ago does just that. In “Flume,” amidst Vernon’s echoing voice, the guitar strings vibrate under the pick like a distorted wind chime on a porch, and we hear the wooden movement of Vernon making room for another person in the studio, coming to sing beside him. “Only love is all maroon / Lapping lakes like leery loons / Leaving rope burns, reddish rouge,” he sings in his mellow tone voice. It’s a majestic track of sobering complexity— strangely enough, it influenced Australian musician and producer Harley Edward Streten who picked his stage name after the song (Flume).
On “Skinny Love,” Vernon sings, “And I told you to be patient / And I told you to be fine / And I told you to be balanced / And I told you to be kind.” Vernon is a master of projecting vast quantities of emotion into such small spaces and concise lines of lyrics. The quality of his unique musical ingenuity is something I don’t believe I’ve ever come across before or since.
This type of intimacy with music generated so much praise and fascination at the time. Kanye West was undergoing his own journey into isolation after his outburst at the MTV Music Awards. Despite Vernon and West being completely different in style, tone, and character, the Chicago rapper called up Vernon to ask if he’d work with him on a few projects—which they did on multiple occasions, most notably in Kanye’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, arguably one of the greatest albums of the 21st century. For Emma, Forever Ago led Bon Iver into a prominence even he wasn’t prepared for.
For clarity, Bon Iver is not a one-trick pony. Released in 2011, the group’s next album Bon Iver added a vibrancy into their traditional soft indie folk. They brought in new instrumentals to boost and compliment Vernon’s lyrics. The closing track, “Beth/Rest”, brings in a classy ‘80s sound and synths. The groups third studio album came five years later. 22, A Million is a masterpiece of production, vocals, and instrumentals. Don’t let the unique way Bon Iver use titles put you off because tracks like “33 ‘GOD’” and “29 #Strafford APTS” are phenomenal. While others are simply so unique, it’s impossible to replicate them. On their most recent album i,i, Vernon continues finding new territory, adjusting the direction of the group’s sound to steer clear of repetition. They got inspired by a recent collaboration with a dance group to make the anthemic track “Naeem.” “Tell them I’ll be passing on / Tell them we’re young mastodons,” Vernon sings, to rising drums and guitar. For me, Bon Iver’s whole journey kind of feels like it’s led to that moment: where Vernon and the group are releasing all their energy in this track of being young and powerful. They’ve gone from being somber and isolated to connected and boisterous.
For Emma, Forever Ago has stuck with me for years now. In truth, I can imagine listening to the album almost anywhere, doing anything. It’s that impactful. I’m a writer as well. I write about introspection, relationships, feeling isolated or away from home. When I’m at my best, it’s when I’m listening to music that carries those feelings, and there’s not a single song in that album that doesn’t project feeling onto the listener; that’s unique and in a more practical sense, it’s also incredibly useful.