For Emma, Forever Ago
nspired by social theorist Zygmunt Bauman and curated by the University of Tasmania, PostEverything’s On Isolation comp featured sonic interpretations of concepts familiar to The Artist: detachment, emptiness, solitude. British experimental musician Scanner offered “Mountain Cabin,” alloying field recordings of rainfall and canines doing the wet-dog shake with sparse, somber piano lines. The track’s potency lies in those piano parts, which never elicit their intended melancholy thanks to the intruding bursts of noise leaping to the fore. The result is woozy, wormy discomfort—and serves as an effective meditation on the many by-products of isolation.
Justin Vernon (recording under the pseudonym Bon Iver) has an equally effecting take. But first, some backstory: Vernon touched down in Raleigh, N.C., in 2005 with DeYarmond Edison, an indie quartet comprised of himself and three childhood / college friends. The Triangle swooned, a five-song EP was cut to appease the fiends—and then the conquering heroes called it quits. The morrow now wrought with uncertainty, Vernon returned to Wisconsin, where he spent three winter months at his father’s hunting lodge in northern Dunn County. He stacked cords of firewood, chipped away ice dams, and used the daylight hours for recording sessions. It wasn’t to escape from the precariousness of Bauman’s “liquid modernity” or the boundless connectivity in today’s globalized world, but more to just . . . well, sort shit out.
For Emma, Forever Ago is the result of Vernon’s self-imposed solitary confinement, an album possessing Elliot Smith’s folk-tinged starkness and the analog-tape warmth of Samuel Beam. Unlike the interpretations from On Isolation, Vernon’s music is stripped-down, uniformly quiet, and confessional, his clipped, cracked, Will Oldham-inspired lyrics not evidence of cabin delirium, but the work of an artist warmed by a creative glow that only pure isolation (read: freedom) can fully render. “Lapping lakes like leery loons,” come the tangled words in “Flume”—his supernal falsetto reminding of Great Lake Swimmers’ Tony Dekker—cut over strummed guitar complete with the lo-fi scrabble of the Marshmallow Coast. And in “Lump Sum,” alliteration and absurdity play a game of footsies: “My mile could not / Pump the plump / In my arbor ‘till my ardor / Trumped every inner inertia.”
“Lump Sum” is another subdued emotional track, Vernon conveying the idea of hawking even our most worthy things for clarity’s sake (“Sold my red horse for a venture home”), while “Creature Fear” displays a rare moment of bellicosity: over a finger-picked melody, “So many foreign worlds / So relatively fucked” and later, “I was teased out by your blouse / Spit out by your mouth.”
On a more subtle level, Vernon explores man’s acquaintance with nature. In “The Wolves,” he cries of anguish surrounding his beloved like the animals in the song’s title. The album’s closer, “re: stacks,” evokes more predators, Vernon turning standard imagery on its head as he sings of a black crow clutching his car keys. The message is an easy one to grasp: Despite our newfangled, high-speed technologies, the natural world will always catch up to us. I mean, fuck, even the Empire St. Building gets water in its basement.
So, The Artist isolated, with nothing more than a SM57 microphone, recording equipment, and a Sears typewriter complete with dust cover: recipe for maudlin self-indulgence, no? Perhaps in other hunting lodges. Vernon does plop his viscera on a scale, but he never demands your pity, never shakes you down for a Band-Aid. He draws his own conclusions, drafts his own solutions. In the touching love parable “For Emma”—one of only two tracks glossed with post-production; in this case, trumpet and trombone—Vernon confronts a relationship’s flaws and sourness head-on, before realizing: It’s healthier to summon those instances you wanted to kiss that rosebud mouth and not the instances you wanted to cuff it. “I toured the light,” he sings, “so many foreign roads for Emma, forever ago.”
Just one of many lessons from an artist who ventured into the dirty pine of Wisconsin and gave his soul a good scrubbing.