In November 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 recording songs. When he emerged, in February 2007, he had something that would change his life forever: nine songs over 37 minutes, none of which he’d originally intended for people to hear, at least not in great numbers. He named his new project Bon Iver, French for “good winter.” Only a few hundred copies were pressed in a self-recorded run he passed around among friends and locals.
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 when 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 win a Grammy 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.”
Since its release, the romantic and almost mystical qualities of For Emma haven’t faded. 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.)
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 are. 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. It starts with “Flume,” the one song he’s said still resonates with him and the song that prompted a 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.
But that voice. It inspired generations of imitators. Vernon said he’d eventually found his lyrics and phrasings in a “weird, subconscious, 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 realization,” he sings, above honeyed guitar notes. “It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away/Your love will be safe with me.”
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 different. He was going through something essential. What you’re hearing as a result, start to finish, is catharsis. That will always be timeless.