The back story to Justin Vernon's 2007 album is enough to attract widespread media interest. An album of haunting, sparse, lonesome and primitive songs, 'For Emma, Forever Ago' was recorded over a particularly good winter for the Wisconsin native (hence his moniker, a bastardised take on the French for 'good winter' - 'bon hiver').
Hibernating away from the dual break-up of two relationships – that with a girl and that with a band - Vernon retreated, alone, to an isolated cabin in the cold Wisconsin mountainside for four autumn/winter months. Locked away in his own self-imposed solitary confinement, he wrote, recorded and produced an album which could have only stemmed from such isolation.
Self-released, with only 500 copies made initially, 'For Emma, Forever Ago' rapidly grew legs, spiking the interest, first of Pitchfork, the influential US indie-music website, and then 4AD, home of The Pixies, to earn a 2008 release within the wider-world.
While 'For Emma, Forever Ago's inception is key to understanding it, Vernon is much more than a good story, or a romanticised example of the artist at work. 'For Emma, Forever Ago' is a great record, teeming with beauty and full of perfectly rounded, exhilaratingly poignant songs.
Stripped down, uniformly quiet, hushed and confessional, Vernon exhumes the starkness of Elliott Smith, the wistful lyrics of Will Oldham and the primitive, sense of isolation so expertly conveyed by Sigur Rós. In many ways, 'For Emma, Forever Ago' is the kind of record you might get should the Icelandic four-piece embark on an Americana, Neil Young folk project.
The hushed production and lo-fi recording bares the faintest hiss - the evidence of something innocent and organic – and this contributes much to 'For Emma, Forever Ago's inherent beauty. From opener 'Flume' you can sense the isolation, the cold wood cabin, the fire in the corner and the wolves lurking out by the surrounding blanket of snow. Layered vocals stamp all over the production and further heighten the ghostly quality of the record, as a choral of spirits opens the wistful 'Lump Sum'.
'Skinny Love' lets us in as to the 'wheres and whys' of the ethereal mood Vernon has conjured up. As the album's title might suggest, the death of love haunts the album, and here his hushed vocal seeks, or silently begs, for love's preservation - "Come on skinny love just last the year/Pour a little salt we were never here," he sings, before the depth of his hurt and anger becomes apparent ands his vocal switches from hushed and hurt to primitive and possessed. He asks: "Now all your love is wasted?/Then who the hell was I?/ Who will love you?/Who will fight?/Who will fall far behind?" It makes for four sublime minutes of raw emotion, distilled within fine melody and sparse, moving music. It's a song which maps out the record's centre.
'The Wolves (Act I and II)' continues the record's theme of heartbreak with the opening line, "Someday my pain, someday my pain/Will mark you." As the song builds to a crescendo, Vernon asks "What might have been lost?" before calling for time in his isolation. "Don't bother me," he insists. Again it's an emotional, ghostly moment which captures all that is unsettling in heartbreak.
This further permeates the record as the album continues. In lesser hands such an emotionally volatile subject can be handled too mournfully, merely resulting in an elongated moan - hence the disdain by many of the lovelorn singer-songwriter.
Vernon, however, neatly side-steps the potholes in the terrain by placing his vocal low in the mix and singing almost exclusively falsetto to mask his lyrics, instead unveiling the emotion through the music. On 'Creature Fear' his words are almost inaudible but the mood and the feeling of the song leaves no room for misunderstanding as to what he's conveying.
'For Emma' sees three voices – a him, her and narrator – all sung by Vernon, tell the story over a mid-tempo folk song as Vernon laments and gets through his anguish. "With all your lies," he sings, "You're still very lovable."
And loveable is eminently what 'For Emma, Forever Ago' is. For all its evident pain, hurt and raw emotion, Vernon has crafted something stunningly striking, which you'll find yourself seeking solace in time and time again.
It's an over-used expression, but this is truly an album delivered direct from the rawest recesses of the heart.
One of the year's finest releases.