“I am my mother’s only one. It’s enough.”
So opens Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago – the band’s 2007 debut record that spawned a thousand (pretty uninteresting) beard/flannel jokes and (pretty interestingly) altered the sonic landscape of indie folk music. The brainchild of Justin Vernon (proud son of Eau Claire, Wisconsin), the album was elegy. It seemed to grieve: not for a lover necessarily, or at least not only for a lover, but for companionship and the entire premise of it. Its origin story only enhanced the sense: Vernon, then living in North Carolina, broke up with his girlfriend, broke up with his band, contracted mono and a liver infection, moved back to Wisconsin, siloed himself in a cabin, and recorded the songs that became For Emma.
The idea of a man bridled with loss retreating to the woods to write and record a stunning testimony to that loss was romantic at the time, even if it has since become a cliché. The record was almost painfully vulnerable, even in its moments of greatest lyrical opacity. But its very vulnerability was what made it so profoundly relatable. One can listen to what was probably the album’s biggest “hit” (to the extent that there were hits), the driving “Skinny Love,” and find a touchstone in it somewhere to latch on to. (The opening line “Come on, skinny love, just last the year” as an entry point tells you all you need to know about the framework.) The same with my personal favorite, “Re: Stacks,” whose proclamation that “Your love will be safe with me” is simultaneously so romantic, gracious, pleading, and vulnerable that it guts me every time I hear it, no matter what mood I’m in.
It didn’t hurt that the record was sonically gorgeous. On the records since For Emma, Bon Iver’s sound has gone through so many evolutions – all of which pushed the entire genre in new directions – that it’s easy to lose sight of how deceptively simple that first album sounded. Driven primarily by Vernon’s falsetto (a new instrument to him, whose natural voice and the one that he’d used in a host of previous bands is a deep baritone), guitars, and a basic drum kit, there was little in the way of sonic embellishment. It sounded like it came from a cabin in the Wisconsin Northwoods.
I first heard the record in 2007 or early 2008. It was important to me for a couple of different reasons. For one, when you grow up in Wisconsin and become aware of where Wisconsin ranks relative to the rest of the world in the eyes of many outsiders, you develop a sense that your home state is a place that does not birth things of significant cultural consequence. As the mythos of For Emma gained traction, as music writers began hearing it and publicizing it, it became a point of pride for all of us. Vernon comes from just outside of Eau Claire (pop. roughly 68,000). I was born in Milwaukee, but my birth mother put me up for adoption (my birth father was not in the picture by that point) and I was adopted by a couple in rural Wisconsin outside the city of La Crosse (pop. roughly 52,000), about two hours south of Eau Claire. Vernon and I are roughly the same age, and even though there are vast differences between our personal experiences, it was easy to see a lot of my life in the parts of Vernon’s that he chose to reveal in his songs.
For Emma also landed at a time of deep transition for me. It released in July of 2007. I was leaving Wisconsin for the first time, moving to Chicago without a particular plan of what I was going to do with my life. I had graduated from college in 2005 and been working a job I didn’t like in my hometown for about a year and a half before abruptly quitting and deciding to move to the city. I was single. I was broke, and about to get more so thanks to student loans I took out when I decided to take night classes at Roosevelt University in Chicago while working days as a cook at a restaurant in Evanston that catered mostly to Northwestern students whose backgrounds always seemed different than mine in a fundamental way. I was still close with my dad back home in Wisconsin, but my mom had died six years earlier – long enough to not be an open wound, but recent enough to still be a void.
This set of circumstances perhaps made me uniquely susceptible to be drawn in by For Emma. (That opening line, after all.) But I also think it is an album with a preternatural generosity and grace, a grace that invades the interstices of its own seclusion. This, I am sure, is what makes it a record that has continued to resonate with so many in the 10+ years since its release.
The first time I saw Bon Iver play was at a now-defunct comedy club with folding chairs strewn around the floor in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood in April 2008. The band was a 3-piece then, and after they played For Emma cover-to-cover, the audience requested an encore that Vernon sheepishly declined because the band hadn’t yet learned any other songs together.
This past Saturday night, Bon Iver celebrated For Emma’s 10th anniversary with a show at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center – the soon-to-be-demolished arena that houses the Milwaukee Bucks. Vernon’s Wisconsin tribalism runs deep – even in the intervening years, as he has become a collaborator with superstars from Justin Timberlake to Chance the Rapper to Kanye West, he has maintained residence in Wisconsin and built a studio there that draws recording artists from around the world to the Northwoods. He co-curates a major music festival in Eau Claire every year that brings in some of the biggest names in music, as well as thousands of attendees and millions of dollars of economic impact to the city. So it was only natural that he would host the official For Emma anniversary show in Milwaukee. (There isn’t a venue big enough for such an affair in Eau Claire.)
My partner and I made the pilgrimage from Indianapolis for the show. Although I have seen multiple Bon Iver shows in the past ten years, I have never seen one like this. “It’s a crazy story,” Vernon told the crowd. “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.” The band played all of For Emma (though not in order), mixing in a couple of songs from subsequent albums, a couple covers, and an unreleased track (“Hayward, WI”) from the For Emma sessions, too.
The band is now a cascading sonic affair. It sometimes (including on this night) eclipses ten members – a number better equipped to translate the intricacies of the band’s most recent recorded work. But the original touring trio of Justin Vernon, Mike Noyce, and Sean Carey all sat on its center on this night. Noyce sang lead on a cover of Graham Nash’s “Simple Man.” Carey (whose own project, S. Carey, produces similarly gorgeous work) sat behind one of two drum kits throughout the evening, driving many of the songs and layering ethereal harmonies below and above Vernon’s falsetto. There was little sense of isolation here. Not even when Vernon cleared the stage for “Woods” – a song that finds Vernon using a prismizer to layer vocal on top of vocal of vocal until there is a chorus of Vernons singing at once. As if to close a circle, Christy Smith, Vernon’s former partner who became one of the inspirations for the “Emma” of For Emma, sang with the band for much of the show. They closed with a cover of Sarah Siskind’s “Lovin’s for Fools” – for which they flew Siskind in to sing along with.
Before playing “Skinny Love” this night, Vernon told us: “Gotta be careful about nostalgia. Gotta be careful about it. It can be harmful sometimes.” It was an interesting moment. A little bit opaque, a little but vulnerable, a little bit wise. The perfect encapsulation of For Emma. In real time, I read it as exorcism – a comment on the moment that birthed the record and the things that led him to the song. But maybe he was cautioning against precisely the type of comment on his body of work that I am making right now. For Emma was a very backward-looking record, in a way that Bon Iver’s subsequent work was not. Perhaps Vernon was telling us that night to not get caught up in the past, to instead look forward.
As a general operating principle, I am happy to oblige. But in that room with 13,000 people on Saturday night, it was a delight and a comfort to blanket myself in nostalgia – to think back on where we come from and the places we’ve been.