For Emma, Forever Ago is not an album that is often enjoyed passively. Chances are, if you care about Bon Iver at all, then For Emma has spent at least a few months serving as a dominant presence in your life. Maybe it was the soundtrack that swelled underneath the overtures of a bad breakup, or the blanket that wrapped itself around a period of depression, or the score for a season of deep personal examination and contemplation.
For Emma is an album about turning inward, sidling up to a painful experience and giving it one final, long embrace. It’s an album about crumbling relationships, disappointment and loss, but also about the freedom that comes with finally letting go; about laying to rest all the frustration and bitterness and searching for a path out of the fog.
It’s ironic that an album about letting go brought so much rushing into Justin Vernon’s life. The story around the album’s creation has become lore; his presence in the music industry has become larger than life. Because it was a story told so many times across so many burgeoning little music blogs, many of us feel that we know everything there is to know about how For Emma came to be. But time always has a way of providing a new perspective, and at Saturday night’s 10th anniversary show in Milwaukee, Justin Vernon spent much of the evening zooming out from that pivotal album and telling a larger and clearer story about that transformative period of his life.
“It’s a crazy story. A long time ago we made some songs happen, and now we’re here. There was some music that happened around that time that are part of that story, too, and we’re going to play some of that tonight,” he said, gazing out at the roughly 13,000 fans that packed the BMO Harris Bradley Center for the one-off celebration.
Rather than play the songs on For Emma in order, Vernon began the show with a handful of songs from the record — including the fan favorite “Skinny Love” and a blistering, rapturous rendition of “Creature Fear” — before heading down a more winding path, taking the audience on a tour through his mid-2000s mind. An unreleased song, “Hayward, WI,” provided an unusually literal and unabashedly nostalgic look back on graduation day, melodically evoking the Dylan classic “Forever Young,” while a stunning solo performance of “Woods” found Vernon poignantly caught in the crosshairs of the bright spotlights that rotated around him, a visual representation of the dramatic effect the song had on his life — not to mention the ripple effects it would have on the mainstream hip-hop world.
“It’s odd how time seems to bend in on itself sometimes,” Vernon noted, almost under his breath. The first few songs felt overly rehearsed and polished, bolstered by the support of a sprawling live band that was at least three times larger than the original trio (which included Sean Carey and Mike Noyce) that toured behind For Emma, but as time went on Vernon seemed to become more and more immersed in the songs and more present in the experience.
“Gotta be careful about nostalgia. Gotta be careful about it. It can be harmful sometimes,” he warned before playing “Skinny Love.” Maybe he was cautioning against spending too much time looking back on previous work, or maybe he was holding back a bit because he didn’t want the painful memories of that era to consume him. Writing and recording For Emma was clearly a cathartic process for Vernon, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the emotional toll that several years of touring behind it must have taken, as if locking him into a time loop of the experiences that he was hoping to leave behind. Time heals, they say, and maybe 10 years is just enough time to get away from the memories that haunted him, and for resentment and anguish to make way for peace and gratitude.
How else to explain the poignant moment when Vernon invited his former girlfriend, Christy Smith, to the stage to publically acknowledge her immense contributions to the development of his sound and band? It was Smith who lived with Vernon and helped him to set up a makeshift ProTools rig in their guest bedroom in Raleigh, North Carolina, and recorded his first song from For Emma, “Flume,” capturing his newly discovered falsetto on tape. Saturday’s show was all about providing more context for the beginning of Bon Iver, and for me, this realization was the most profound. For 10 years, we’ve heard the story about the man retreating into the woods alone to find his voice, and understood the Eau Claire-Raleigh music scene as one that has been centered around the hidden fragility of the Midwestern male perspective and the talent of Vernon’s network of male friends. At long last, we now understand that the album named after a metaphorical woman was also deeply inspired by the actual ones in Vernon’s life — not just women acting as off-stage muses and love interests, but as literal producers and creative collaborators whose presence has mysteriously been hidden from view.
This re-centering of the For Emma narrative on women continued into the encore, when Vernon brought out a “hero” he admires, Sarah Siskind, to duet on a song of hers that was an integral part of those early Bon Iver shows, “Lovin’s for Fools.” It certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve been moved to tears at a Bon Iver show, but hearing Vernon, Noyce, and Carey’s harmonies ring out across the arena and then stop short so that Siskind could step to the mic, and all three looking on in reverence as she sang a verse of her monumental song alone, brought a whole new kind of lump to my throat. After so much time looking back, it felt as if the entire band took one beautiful step forward. Who knows what revelations the 20th anniversary For Emma show might bring.
Justin Vernon – guitar, looping and vocals
Sean Carey – drums and vocals
Mike Noyce – guitar and vocals
Mark Paulson – guitar and vocals
John DeHaven – trumpet
Randall Pingrey – trombone
Matt McCaughan – drums
Andrew Fitzpatrick – guitar
Mike Lewis – sax and bass
Christy Smith – vocals
Sarah Siskind – vocals
Simple Man (Graham Nash)
The Wolves (Act I and II)
Lovin’s For Fools (Sarah Siskind)
More photos courtesy of Middle West: