There is a great mythology around the first Bon Iver album, For Emma, Forever Ago. After watching his former band break up then contracting mono and a liver infection, Justin Vernon moved away from Raleigh, North Carolina and back home to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Like a Jack Kerouac type figure, for several months Vernon stayed at his Dad’s cabin in the woods and worked on the songs that would form this debut album. The album was self released in 2007 then later re-released by Jagjaguwar in early 2008.
“Flume” is the track that turned Vernon’s music career around. Working with an acoustic guitar and experimenting with a falsetto for the first time, it opened up more possibilities to be vulnerable with an added effect of tracking his own vocals to sound like a choir. First single “Skinny Love” sees Vernon tell a partner “I told you to be patient….and I told you to be kind” in a relationship that doesn’t have a lot of weight to it. “What might have been lost” turns “The Wolves (Act I and II)” into a mantra of sorts. Both “Lump Sum” and “Blindsided” feature memorable guitar hooks while “For Emma” adds a nice addition of horns.
For Emma is mostly an acoustic album and one that is added to by the story surrounding it. It can feel claustrophobic at times but also celebratory as a young man works through the troubles in his life alone. Justin Vernon has gone on to work with James Blake, Kanye West and most recently with Taylor Swift while also curating a music festival in Wisconsin. A lot of that success started with this album that is included in Rolling Stone magazine’s most recent top 500 albums of all time. It is a lowkey standout album from the first decade of the 2000s.