Today marks 15 years since Bon Iver released For Emma, Forever Ago. After breakups with his band and girlfriend, singer-songwriter Justin Vernon sought refuge by holing up in a hunting cabin in Wisconsin and sketching out nine songs. He was, as he later told Rolling Stone, “shatteringly alone.” Vernon didn’t intend the tracks for public consumption, but after strong praise from friends, he self-released the album in July 2007. In an interview with Pitchfork, Vernon explained that “when I made For Emma, it was my last chance to see if I could sit down and make something, for myself, that was beautiful.” Beautiful it was: Vernon brought us an unrelenting, truth-telling album, a story of painful catharsis.
This live version of standout track “Skinny Love,” from SXSW 2008, shows the arc of the band’s journey and exemplifies their character; an intimate audience watches as Vernon accompanies his chilling falsetto with a folky guitar, singing of a love malnourished. A kick drum comes in during the bridge as Vernon’s gutting raspiness rings out. It’s ghostly and gorgeous, not unlike the album as a whole.
Bon Iver has since worked on projects that don’t require living in a cabin, but today we honor the album that made it all possible, one that still resonates for so many. For Emma is Vernon’s story of loss and “long love,” which, he explained, doesn’t ever “really [go] away fully. You just sort of learn where to keep it.”
Catch Bon Iver on their upcoming European tour.