The Wolves (Act I and II)
In November of 2006, Justin Vernon packed up his belongings in Raleigh, North Carolina, and drove 18 hours through the night, back to where he grew up in northwestern Wisconsin. But once he made it home to his parents’ place in Fall Creek, he didn’t stay long enough to see them. Instead, he kept driving, to a remote hunting cabin his father had built in 1979, on an 80-acre spread in the North Woods referred to amongst family as, “the land.” Save for the wildlife—wolves, deer, wild turkey—and the occasional, slightly concerned visit from his father, Vernon, then 25, was alone out there for months. He chopped wood, drank beer, watched old episodes of Northern Exposure, hunted for his meals, and, eventually, began self-recording what would become one of the most unlikely and influential albums in recent memory. That was never the plan.
Vernon had originally moved to North Carolina with his band, DeYarmond Edison, a Wilco-indebted roots-rock unit he’d formed in high school with some of his closest friends—local guys he’d met in jazz camp before he was a teen. It didn’t go well. Vernon struggled with depression, mononucleosis, and liver issues. He drank too much and gambled away what little money he made washing dishes by playing poker online. Within a year, he dissolved the band and his relationship with his longtime girlfriend. All at once. You can understand why he’d want to spend some time on his own, why he’d run. But you wouldn’t have believed anyone if they’d told you that Vernon would be recording in a compound on Oahu with Kanye West four years later, or nominated for a GRAMMY® he’d win just over a year after that. “I was embarrassed about it,” he said later, of giving up and coming home. “That’s why I went up there.”
Years later, the legend of For Emma, Forever Ago is every bit as romantic and mystifying as it was the first time you heard it. This, despite its being repeated and distorted and eventually co-opted so extensively it became parody. When Justin Timberlake dons a frown and fake beard to impersonate you on SNL, there’s a chance you’ve been swallowed up by your own backstory, no matter how personal. But even now, the music is still so affecting, so immediate, so pure in its own way. Vernon was somewhere in the vicinity of rock bottom when he went “up there.” When he emerged, in February of 2007, he had something that would change his life forever: just nine songs over 37 minutes, none of which he’d originally intended for people to hear, at least not in great numbers. That part is key. He named it, in tribute, to the girl, and he gave his new project the name Bon Iver, French for “good winter.” Only a few hundred copies were pressed in a self-recorded run he passed around amongst friends and locals. In September of this year, it was certified platinum. He hasn’t recorded anything like it since, but he couldn’t even if he’d wanted to. It’s a comet.
Some albums are hailed for being regionally specific, unique to that spot on the map where they were made, whether it’s Atlanta or Manchester. But For Emma... has an emotional and atmospheric specificity to it as well. Listen on headphones. The moment you hit play, everything around you goes still and the temperature seems to drop, no matter where you live. You’re not just in Wisconsin now, you’re alone in a timber-frame cabin, in the dead of winter, surrounded by miles of frozen birch trees and snow-bathed hills, with a guy who’s hurting, howling, caterwauling at times. His pain is authentic and palpable, his voice otherworldly. It starts with “Flume”, the one song he’s said still resonates with him and the song that prompted a then newfound falsetto to tumble out of him unexpectedly as he wrote it. For years he’d sung in an earthen baritone (he once called his vocals in DeYarmond Edison very “Hootie,” in reference to Darius Rucker’s) but he’d also grown up singing along with the voices of women—Mahalia Jackson, Bonnie Raitt, Indigo Girls. When his dad would pop by to check on him, he was just as startled by the anguish he heard as he was the voice that was channeling it. He’d never heard his son sing that way before. Imagine how strange that must have been.
But that voice. It inspired generations of imitators. Vernon eventually found his lyrics and phrasings in a “weird, sub-conscious, back-door way,” by humming the melodies over and over until the words finally just came. Both are haunting. “What might have been lost,” he sings in the towering coda of “The Wolves (Act I and II)", his vocals processed and layered so densely he eventually becomes a choir of one. His voice takes on a soulful grain in the therapeutic chorus of “Skinny Love”, like a blues singer’s. It floats and falls in “Re: Stacks”, the album’s gorgeous closer: “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realisation,” he sings, above velveteen guitar notes. “It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away/Your love will be safe with me.”
You often have trouble understanding him, but the emotion doesn’t require any translating. His voice is so powerful and weirdly acrobatic an instrument that West—another early vocoder champion—had to have it. When he contacted a dumbfounded Vernon and asked him to come to Hawaii to sing on what would become West’s 2010 masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Vernon insisted that West come to Wisconsin. A snowstorm intervened so Hawaii it was. Days later, Vernon was sitting side-by-side in a studio with the likes of Nicki Minaj, JAY Z and Rick Ross, on a tropical island in the Pacific, light years away from “the land.” It’s difficult to understate his presence on that album, and the exposure it brought him. But what you hear on the relatively modest For Emma... makes just as much sense in that context.
Vernon said once in an interview that he remembers his body chemistry changing as he recorded For Emma..., that his sweat began to smell and taste differently. He was going through something essential. The result is as perfectly weighted and exquisitely structured an album as you’ll find—what you’re hearing and experiencing, start to finish, is catharsis. That will always be timeless.