New Year 3 – Bon Iver’s ‘To Emma, Forever Ago’


Rory’s contribution:

‘As I pretty much live off of iTunes now, much to the annoyance of my more traditional acquaintances, my first (and pretty much only) stage of research was to arrange my collection into those songs and albums added or first played within the last 12 months.

What remained was to sort that list into order of album/artist, scroll through and pick out a favourite. I was pretty surprised how few new full albums I’d added in the past year. Quite a few were albums I was revisiting, perhaps I had it on cassette once and now I’d added in digital format, many were simply old CDs I’d added to my mp3 library. The vast majority were albums I’d been checking out and just not liked or one-off downloads of singles and individual songs. Very few fell into the category of ‘albums that I’d heard for the first time this year and liked’. Only 3 albums stood out for me. They were:

For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver

Holy Fuck by Holy Fuck

The Con by Tegan and Sarah.

These three pretty different albums by pretty different artists caught my ears for pretty different reasons. I had a think and decided I wanted to write about For Emma, Forever Ago.

Having first downloaded the album early in the year but not really giving it much thought, I then saw Bon Iver live and thought the performance pretty good. A couple of days later I began giving the album a listen and was instantly drawn in. There was something about the way it was recorded that really set it apart and created a very intimate atmosphere. These days, I rarely read up on the albums I listen to, but in this case I did.

It seemed Bon Iver, (Justin Vernon), recorded the entire album in a shack in the middle of nowhere while recovering from a liver disease. Or something like that. Using his own multitracker and a limited range of instruments and found objects he created the entire album as a demo of sorts, but later decided it was good enough quality to release.

Knowing this, things made a little more sense, and I could understand what has given this album such a feeling of solitude and contemplation. It’s almost as if by listening to this collection of songs, we’ve stumbled upon a portal into Vernon’s head where we can feel and hear his memories and the emotions tied to them.

To Emma, Forever Ago has a very nostalgic, introspective feel to it, set largely by the title itself, which suggests the album might be a list of thoughts which should have been conveyed long ago but which, almost regrettably, never were. Despite this, the album succeeds in never becoming sorrowful or self-pitying, but instead leans toward the beautifully downbeat.

Lyrically, TEFA reads much like a collection of poems, somewhat obscure in their meaning, but fascinating to listen to nonetheless. Themes that can be derived often cover love, ambiguous relations and the flesh.
But it seems to me that the lyrics of the album are entirely secondary to the music itself, serving only to reinforce the atmosphere created by the tone of Vernon’s voice and instruments.

That’s not to say that Vernon’s instrumental capabilities are anything revolutionary. The guitars might be uniquely tuned to Vernon’s preference but the majority of songs are fundamentally conventional in their structure. It is in fact the nuances of each song’s performance that give TEFA its strength and distinct beauty. This was an album written and recorded at the artist’s leisure and in complete isolation, and it shows.

Songs are never rushed but instead flow along at an exquisitely slow and purposeful pace. But most important to its success is the album’s production style. Given Vernon had the time, the space and the freedom to create the album however he wished, you could imagine he was tempted to record and rerecord until the perfect, slick, studio sound had been achieved, but it seems the opposite is true.

The layered vocals of Wolves stray remarkably off beat, guitars slip in and out of sync with each other, songs end like unfinished thoughts, drums scramble in uncontrolled bouts of energy without any coordination or care for rhythm, silences are filled with (un)intentional twangs and bumps of strings and floorboards. There is no doubt that there is something ‘messy’ about TEFA, but for me this is what truly lies at the heart of the album and gives it its accessibility.

To me it is symbolic of the artist’s thought processes, reflective of the nature of the album’s recording process and fundamental in drawing the listener into the mood and ambience. I can almost feel myself in the room with him, despite the fact it would mean he has a dozen voices.

To Emma, Forever Ago is my album recommendation for the year, for its soulful, beautifully performed musings and poetic atmosphere and acoustics. It’s one album worth turning your shuffle function off for, and is definitely going to be a favourite of mine for a long time to come.’

D.Lippard tomorrow…

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3 Responses to “New Year 3 – Bon Iver’s ‘To Emma, Forever Ago’”

  1. Amy Says:

    This was my favourite album of the year, too – the year 2008, when it came out. It came out in February; it’s nearly two years old!

    Apart from that little bit of being picky, I agree. This is a beautiful album that I’m going to listen to for a long time.

  2. Amy Says:

    Reading Lee’s piece, I realise that Spokes just asked for something you’d heard this year… so I take that back.

  3. Lee Says:

    Must resist the ‘you’ve been looking at my piece?’ jibe.

    I didn’t get all the way through this album the first time. Will try again.

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