Do we need to go into the story of how this one came about again? It seems that every professional review felt the need to repeat the same information about the whys and hows of Justin Vernon's debut recording under the Bon Iver name, even a full year after the album became a massive word of mouth hit and everyone who cared knew about the circumstances. And while context is important in a lot of cases, I've found myself wondering whether any of it even matters with respect to the album itself; if the album had just been released without the sob story would it have become one of the most revered albums of the decade without any push outside of word of mouth and a glowing Pitchfork review? I'd like to think it would, lord knows its good enough to set the right people off without much provocation, but the way it's continually presented as being of a piece with the story of Vernon retreating to a cabin in the woods after he broke up with his girlfriend to record it almost serves to diminish its impact as a damn near perfect break up album. Without that little story to attach all the songs to it still stands out, but when all that anyone talks about is the story it obscures just how damn good the songs are.
So let's talk about the songs then, because For Emma, Forever Ago contains eight absolutely devastating and poignant ones that would do any dude with an acoustic guitar proud. The one thing that the circumstances of its creation ensured was that the songs would never get overly busy, with only a few having more than Vernon's acoustic strumming as accompaniment, but that's not exactly something that would make it stand out. The only thing that does that are the songs themselves, and each of them (excluding the instrumental "Team") is a note perfect break up song. They don't all cover the some territory of course, with the tone ranging from defiant on "Skinny Love" to utterly resigned and hurt on the very next track, but they're all held together by the unique aura that songs of lost love have about them. It's there in the lush and sensual "Creature Fear," one of the biggest growers the album houses, as Vernon seems to be reliving a particularly intimate moment with a genuine sense of loss. It's there in "Skinny Love," the only time he seems to get angry about the break up - 'now all your love is wasted?/then who the hell was I?' especially hits the sort of loathing that seems to be missing elsewhere - and it's there when he drawls 'what might have been lost/don't bother me' on "The Wolves (Act I and II)". It's the sort of enveloping sense of loss that defines it for me more than its circumstances do; they may be intertwined to some extent, but the former would have been there even if he'd stayed home to record it.
The one thing that the whole cabin retreat aspect does lend to it is a sense of isolation. It's one thing to make this type of album with people still moving through your life, but Vernon recorded so much of it in hermit mode that it feels so much more desolate than most other break up albums. It's odd to see it that way when a full half the songs are augmented by a quasi full-band - albeit after the fact - but even on something like "Creature Fear," probably the closest to a full-band sound the album has, or the horn augmented "For Emma" there's a palpable sense of loneliness that pushes through. Once again though, that feeling would be there no matter what was known about the impetus for the album's creation. It's not the kind of thing that you can fake, the sort of isolation that the album embodies, and even without the extra knowledge of what the recording environs were like I'd assume as much about its creation. There's a certain transparency about For Emma, Forever Ago that makes it impossible to not guess much of what was already known about it, if that makes sense.
I know that having some sort of hook is almost essential to an album as under the radar as For Emma getting any kind of traction, and its ascension from self-released, not meant to be heard outside a small circle of Vernon's friends document to one of the biggest successes of the late decade owes as much to that story as it does to the quality of the album, but in a way it seems a bit unfair to have it all explained like that. The lack of mystery doesn't bother me when the material is this good, but having the whole process spelt out like that makes it seem less special somehow. I don't think it lowers my opinion of the album, I mean it coming it at #43 here says enough about how much I enjoy it, but a little less emphasis on the cabin and all that would probably serve the album better.