Every November, thousands of people sign up to try to write a novel (50,000 words or more) in just 30 days. Known as NaNoWriMo, the idea is to encourage people to get off their asses and start writing rather than putting it off. Not to toot my own horn, but I participated last November and managed to do it. Today, I got an email saying that I get a free paperback proof copy of my novel for 'winning.' Of course I'm pretty excited about this, because it's actual physical evidence that I can finish something creative. That kind of excitement--being able to create something and see it birthed into the world as a physical object--must have been equally titillating for Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, who recorded For Emma, Forever Ago and self-released it, eventually getting picked up by indie stalwarts 4AD (in the U.K.) and Jagjaguwar (in the U.S.). Flash forward to last month and he's performing on 'Live With Conan O'Brien.'
It's an inspiring story, and one I can now vaguely relate to. The interesting tale of this album's creation is a bit better than my "I wrote a novel in a month because I felt like it", though: recorded in remote Wisconsin, after the breakup of a band and a relationship, For Emma, Forever Ago was put down in a few months time mostly by Vernon who had originally intended to spend said time recuperating from the events of the previous year. The story could've out shined the album, but here Bon Iver has released one of those special and rare singer/songwriter albums that have their own unique feel and atmosphere but belong to a rich tradition of other special and rare singer/songwriter albums.
It's easy to romanticize the 'suffering artist' because it seems like so much great art is born out of pain and desperation. Indeed, there is something...damaged about needing to express yourself even though you fear the judgment of others and doubt the quality of your expression. Maybe it's egotistical, but artists are people who have to express their ideas, emotions, and feelings in some manner instead of just keeping them inside or only talking about them like most people. Yet great art doesn't demand pain to happen. I would argue, though, that the most human of art comes from deep emotions. It can be pain, but it doesn't have to be. I mean, I like Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited but Blood on the Tracks is, to me, his most human, moving, and memorable album even if he denies it has any basis in reality. So it is that I find For Emma, Forever Ago great art, because it is movingly human in its searching lyrics and longing music. Vernon may not be directly expressing his feelings here, and I don't exactly know what some of the lyrics refer to, but I still somehow understand them on an emotional level that goes beyond explainable comprehension.
It's partially a matter of taste, but once your critical faculties are up to snuff it's easy to spot counterfeit emotion and bad poetry from truth and genius. And I find both of the latter in this album. Yes, the lyrics are fantastic, but Vernon's voice is painfully naked and deserves praise. It takes some amount of courage and skill to sound this vulnerable and this sure of yourself at the same time. With his wounded falsetto chorsues and wispy low moaning, he could be singing the alphabet and it would still be devastating. Meanwhile, whether planned or not, the album itself seems to thaw as it progresses, a return from the frozen Wisconsin wilderness. At the same time, perhaps an acceptance and recovery from big changes. The last lyrics of the album seem to acknowledge that whatever love has ended will never come back, but he'll always have the memory of that love; the loss of it, however, has not destroyed him or irrevocably changed him for the worse:
This is not the sound of a new man
or crispy realization
it's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away
your love will be
safe with me
It's always easy for me to forget albums like this when I'm discussing my 'best of the year' lists with the other music nerds and obsessives. These kinds of records, well, they don't change the world, create new genres, or instantly make scenes and sound-alikes sprout up in their wake. No, For Emma, Forever Ago is a familiar but fantastic pleasure, like spending a day off with a pot of tea, a new novel, and a rainstorm. The environment is well known but the novel is not. So it is with this album. It's one of the 2008's best (though technically it was self-released in 2007, so...) and a low key, strongly human piece of loss, pain, and recovery.