Attempting to describe the debut album from Bon Iver is not unlike describing the magnolia tree currently blooming in my back yard. I could write about the colors and smells and the way the lawn under the tree turns white when a storm disturbs its petals. But it’s still just a tree until you sit on my back porch and take it in.
For Emma, For Ever Ago is a gorgeous nine-track journey filled with raspy guitars and lilting falsettos. Whether Bon Iver, front man Justin Vernon’s moniker, is journeying towards a particular destination or escaping a troubling past is left up to the listener. For my money, it’s a little of each. The strange genesis of the album is part of the allure for Vernon’s fans. At the tail end of a break-up with his band and girlfriend and feeling the affects of a bout of pneumonia, Vernon packed up his recording equipment and drove to an isolated Wisconsin cabin. The result of the months spent in relative isolation is For Emma.
Most of us haven’t had this exact experience, yet Vernon’s songs make us feel as though we have. Our empathy is achieved not through precise and evocative language, but by employing syllables – not always fully formed into words – such that we feel and see with surprising clarity. What we see, of course, are our own moments of journey and escape.
For Emma is certainly not the first album to disassemble the song-writing process. Sigur Rós’ fabricated language, Hopelandic, is perhaps the best-known example of a band intentionally communicating through incomprehensible sounds and syllables. And while Bon Iver has not invented a new language, at times his songwriting feels like a fresh dialect to describe a passage too significant for conventional verse.
Maybe the direction of Justin Vernon’s journey as captured in For Emma is not that important. Perhaps what matters more is his ability to create sense and sound for our shared, uncommon experiences.