Decade :: Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)

decade aquarium drunkard

What is it that makes us want to deconstruct art by units of time? Lists. We love making them. We love arguing over them. And here, on the verge of a new decade, we’re in a position to do the same again. What were the best albums of the past ten years?

Here at AD, we started talking it through and decided we weren’t going to add to the cacophony of lists being put out by various music pubs. There are enough of those. Rather, we elected to let our four main writers have a chance to write about any and all of the albums they felt shaped the last decade.

From now through the end of December, Monday through Thursday, AD will feature a post, or posts, from a particular writer detailing their favorite albums of the decade. On a given week there might be one album a writer talks about, there might be six, but they’ll get a chance to have their say on everything that comes to mind. Our hope for you, the reader, is that you’ll jump in with your comments on the album selections — tell us why you agree or disagree — and also be exposed to some albums that you may have missed over the last ten years. Now, as the decade starts to wind down, let’s celebrate.

bon iverThere are two things that make Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago a significant album of the 2000s. One, it’s good. Very good. Great even. Two, it spawned from the Internet, largely the blogosphere.

The latter is important, because the last decade has seen the birth, growth and burgeoning adolescence (still awkward, to be sure) of the digital age of music. Lest we digress too heavily into the finer points of both file-sharing’s impact on the music industry and the impending demise of print media, the short of it is that we’re now listening primarily to a digital music format that we discovered online, probably from a blog like this one. (You’re welcome for the revelation.) And while thousands of artists had been establishing an online presence for years prior to 2007, few had been met with the sensational explosion of the Bon Iver kind.

Justin Vernon recorded an album, without really intending to at first, and in mid-2007, he decided to self-release the rough cuts (you know, just to see if they would take). By February 2008, after a wealth of good press and a few ’07 year-end list sightings (Pitchfork, et al), For Emma, Forever Ago was re-released by Jagjaguwar with a pro bono marketing campaign that Madison Avenue’s finest couldn’t replicate, courtesy of every music blogger on both coasts and in between. And there’s a wonderful irony in that:

An album recorded in spartan conditions in the frigid boreal forests of northern Wisconsin amidst a lingering existential crisis–the least 21st-century, least digital experience imaginable–owes no small part of its immense success to a bunch of music nerds tapping away at their MacBooks on something called the Internet — most likely in an air conditioned room. That alone makes Bon Iver’s contribution to this decade important. But then there’s that first part to consider, as well: The record is great.

We’ve talked many times about folk music and its relationship to landscape. At its core, that’s what folk is. And Vernon’s brand of soul-folk masterfully evokes the cold, distant isolation of its environs. So intrinsically linked it is, that if you knew nothing of For Emma, Forever Ago’s creative circumstances, you might still be able to guess it was recorded somewhere desperately quiet and cold. But the record itself isn’t desperately cold. The cold is all around it, while inside it feels warm, much like you might imagine Vernon’s cabin to be.

That’s not to say the subject matter is inviting, though. While the warmth often comes from the flickering timbre of Vernon’s voice, the heat of it is just as often the impassioned response of emotional upheaval. The record’s flagship, “Skinny Love,” is rife with that very sentiment. In dire and dreary circumstances, the story is furnaced by a frenzied search for catharsis. It’s the sweaty frustration of love-scorned futility. The song, like the album, fights for answers at a time when answers don’t matter, or even exist. Like we so often do, it fights until it runs ragged into desolate exhaustion.

For Emma, Forever Ago is fiery catharsis. It’s panicked frustration. It’s subdued resignation. It is a heart exploding amid such cold circumstances, but it’s better off for it.   words/ j. crosby

MP3: Bon Iver :: Flume
MP3: Bon Iver :: Skinny Love

19 thoughts on “Decade :: Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)

  1. This album is easily near the top of my favorites. I caught his show in Carrboro the night before his album was released on Jagjaguwar. And this blog was where I first of him–thanks for that.

  2. Absolutely fantastic album from start to finish. There’s several parts during “Flume” where his voice sounds like howling wind…gets me every time.

  3. beautiful review. It’s been well over a year since I first received this album and I still listen to it all the time. It has that beautiful, dreamy quality you described so well.

  4. i always end up in a sing-a-long whenever i put this record on. it’s beautiful and it’s the perfect companion on various roadtrips throughout the south. great review.

  5. This was truly a roots album for the decade. It’s pure genius in its overdubbing, the twangy Silvertone guitar, Justin’s falsetto, and just one brilliant song after another. Great review of a great album!

  6. Love the reviews, but this record is incredibly overrated. There are a slew of artists in the same camp as Bon Iver but are much better, namely Damien Jurado and Kenny Roby.

  7. Chris–

    While I enjoy Kenny Roby (I actually work with a couple of his former band mates), I don’t think I would put him in the same camp, stylistically, as Bon Iver.

  8. How is this album overrated? For Emma, Forever Ago has to be the best folk album released in the past 30 years, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Fleet Foxes not withstanding. Bon Iver revolutionized the genre of indie folk, and the album delivers a saturnine euphoria seldom found anywhere – it mesmerizes me how music so melancholy can not make me feel solemn. And it’s not entirely digitalized, a rarity in this era.

  9. Definitely my most played album of the year. Love, love, love it and this review was beautiful. Thank you!

  10. I was kind of just going the singer-songwriter angle. Perhaps I should revisit, but after 4-5 listens, this record just did nothing for me. As far as it being the best folk album of the past 30 years, that’s just blasphemy. Check out Gillian Welch, Richard Buckner’s “The Hill” or about 422 other records.

  11. Chris, with all due respect, if this album “does nothing for you” after 4 or 5 listens, I have to question your credibility (and sanity). To call this album overrated is a joke, frankly.

  12. Chris, interesting you mention Buckner’s The Hill–it’s a personal favorite, but generally Bloomed gets the most credit from Buckner fans. Check out an AD post from earlier this year. Clearly, we think highly of The Hill, as well, but some folks–namely, casual Buckner fans if there were such a thing–think it’s tough to digest.

    That has nothing to do with its quality as compared to Bon Iver, just found it interesting that you mentioned that one specifically. So many overlook how great it is due, maybe, to its format.

  13. For Emma, Forever Ago has become in a very short time in one of my favorite and essential albums. With sounds similar to choral singing he seems to be singing two notes at a time. The entire album is spectacular, with touching lyrics, transparent voice full of impressive falsettos, perhaps coming from the abandonment and peace he finally found.

  14. It’s a terribly overrated album. The man can’t write a melody to save his life. He should take lessons from that young girl Emma the Great.

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