*Originally titled: On The Necessity Of Pain: Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’
I’d like to imagine that every poet, in the midst of all the writing and the pining and the bleeding, comes to a point where they ask themselves: do we really need the pain to write so beautifully?
For me, I can sometimes feel that there looms an unspoken romanticization of pain in every poetic community I have experienced. It may not be readily apparent at first, but as you immerse yourself in the lines and dive deeper into what appears to be happy trails of nonsuspect, you get a sense that yes… you’ve been here before. Of course, each experience would be artistically unique but when you read a lot, in essence, you practice. And with practice you tend to notice the small stuff. You notice the little details, even in the seemingly happiest of poems, tracing back their histories to a sudden break — to something that once caused intense anguish. Of course, there is also the exact opposite, wherein a body of work exudes too much pain that you’d think the concept of subtlety does not exist. I have read and written some of these myself because, I mean, who hasn’t, right?
The question is… is it beautiful? Maybe. Am I doing the world a service by creating these; am I contributing to the artistic world? I can almost anticipate someone responding that none of these questions should matter (just write!), and they would be right. But I ask anyway partly because I wanted what I write to matter and partly because I do not want to imagine pain as an “easy ticket” to beautiful writing.
I imagine that there is a trap, wherein you want to stay and be at home in this bittersweet state that suddenly enables you to write the most moving and compelling of choruses. Sometimes, I am afraid that I would choose to be with pain rather than without even if I can get out, merely because I find more beauty in it.
Is this how artists destroy themselves eventually?
Still, I prompted myself to find a body of work that would best represent this phenomenon in an inspiring and interesting light. I ended up choosing Bon Iver’s debut release, the enchanting “For Emma, Forever Ago.”
For Emma, for the most part, is a work inspired by depression.* It is a work by a man who has undergone a lot. Bon Iver a.k.a. Justin Vernon, in his long journey towards achieving this masterpiece, went through a series of heartbreaks, challenges to his physical health, and the existential pressure of mediocrity. On his way to a hunting cabin where he would eventually create the songs, he stopped at his parents’ house where he described what he felt as “claustrophobic” and “super-empty.” He has lost the spark that once inspired him to be a musician in the first place.
He spent three months in that faraway cabin in Wisconsin, mostly alone (his father would bring him beer and eggs and cheese from time to time). He hunted for his own food, and there was a time he traded venison in the nearby town just so he could repair one of the many guitars he brought with him. His mission was simple: to get away from society, to live simply, to feel how it feels to “not pay bills.” I would imagine that Vernon got so fed up with all the noise around him that he wanted nothing else more than to create music that he admits did not even contain words at first — just notes and melodies that his voice wails in his now widely-recognized falsetto. His stay in that cabin yielded 9 songs which served as the foundation of his rise to popularity as a musician.
Stray thought: if only I know how to hunt my own food I would totally try living like this.
Vernon is in pain, that’s for sure, you can hear it. He one day decided to face it with a sort of brave escapism that I could only dream of doing. I just realized that this is what I loved most about the story of For Emma’s conception.
The album opens with a track called “Flume.” We hear the sound of an acoustic guitar, and the only way I could describe it when I first heard it was that the strumming was content. It was a nostalgic sound, a sound that reminded me of simple times, of a man sitting on a bench, feeling the wind blow on his untroubled face. Just strumming, strumming, not for anything else but for the act of strumming itself.
Not long after, Vernon’s voice sings the album’s very first line:
“I am my mother’s only one. It’s enough.”
Right away one can feel that the singer is trying to convey his acceptance of the self. One can only guess if he was sincere or if he was just forcing himself to believe that he is, indeed, “enough,” but one thing is for sure: what you hear is a man at his most vulnerable. It is a music most intimate I can almost feel the icy winter of his cabin pressing on my skin, giving this light chill.
Track One: “Flume”
There is still as I’ve mentioned a sense of fulfillment here, yet at the same time I can feel a shadow of falseness and a certain lack of conviction. I’m not referring to “lack of conviction” with regard to the actual work and its artistic merit (it is a brilliant album), rather, I am talking about the “character” Vernon portrays. Does he really believe every word he says, or does he just blurt out these sometimes clichéd sentiments in the hopes of someday finally believing that they are true, that they are… applicable to his current plight? I don’t know. What I am sure of is that there, just beneath the surface of every song lurks a soul wanting. Yearning.
In fact, the album’s most popular song “Skinny Love” is in essence a song of pleading. Of begging. “Skinny Love” is perhaps the breaking of this veneer, this film that shrouds the album into a passable escape. “Come on, skinny love, just last the year…” Vernon begs.
After “Skinny Love,” the flow surrenders to a very solemn introduction of “The Wolves (Act I and II),” which promises that “Someday my pain, someday my pain will mark you….” Again, one can interpret this as a sincere warning, but as for me I can sense that the singer is just forcing himself, once more, to believe that his pain could matter… that his pain could “mark” someone.
I imagine that he does give up this notion finally when he drops the line “And the story’s all over.” From there the song builds up into a cacophony of voices singing the phrases “What might’ve been lost” and “Don’t bother me, don’t bother me” over and over, in different registers, while in the background a seemingly random explosion of percussion accentuates the apparent frustration of this creator in realizing that his pain… cannot actually mark anyone. Or at least not the one he wants marked — the only one that matters.
The album is like that, through and through. A sea of contentment, an endless stream of pleasantness that at times gives in to some of its quirks and marvelous contradictions. Another remarkable thing about it is that there are moments when I thought I should be surprised with its sudden turns, but, surprisingly, I wasn’t. At the time I have never experienced the marvel of Vernon’s work before but as I mentioned earlier I am familiar with the feeling that it is there. The pain he hides in the subtle cracks in his voice, the sharp sigh of the brass in the penultimate track “For Emma,” the acidic quality of the cymbal crashes, punctuating the rather basic landscape of winter in all its bitterness; it’s there. “For Emma, Forever Ago” created in me a familiar atmosphere of pain. Something totally new yet I could readily connect to.
When I asked a friend about the necessity of pain and its popularity as a subject, she answered that one reason why pain is so favored a subject is because heartbreak is “easily relatable.” Now, this makes sense and maybe the answers to my questions, to my fear of falling into the “trap,” are as simple as that, too. We want engagement, connection, relation, as a ton of platitudes already say.
It’s true that I may never come to a definite answer to the question of whether pain, as one personally feels it, is really necessary for the most moving and compelling writing. Of whether prolonged rumination is as easily unavoidable as it is enticing. Yet, Vernon’s music teaches us that there are ways to face and frame art wherein pain is not centrally showcased but crafted, woven and hidden among all the uncertainty, doubt, frustrations, and the eventual acceptance that inevitably comes with it.
I would also like to imagine that his second release, the self-titled “Bon Iver” actually carries the acceptance that closed “For Emma” and grows it into full-on hope. The sophomore effort has themes of re-emergence written all over it that one can safely consider it as a soundtrack to leaving that lonely winter cabin in Wisconsin.
I suppose there is just a certain beauty in pain that no other feeling could evoke or express. At some point, we all get the feeling that we have to forget everything behind for a while and just…. leave. Everyone needs a moment in their winter cabin, weaving verses and songs while snowflakes hover delicately across the window, while the fire reminds us of how warmth felt like. We can sow frustrations and curses through the air — eventually finding that we’re planting the very seeds of acceptance in our own time. Just remember that the closed door should not remain as closed forever. We could go back, stronger, with hope in our hearts. The unlocking of that door, of learning and having the patience and courage to face the challenges of belonging again, despite the very real promise of pain, is perhaps the only real point of it all.
“This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization. / It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away. / Your love will be / safe with me.”
*I cite For Emma, Forever Ago’s Wikipedia page as a reference.
First published on my Medium account.
”How I Felt While I was Listening To…” aims to be a regular feature of this blog, wherein I try to write about how I feel about a particular album. It is not meant to be a review, analysis, or critique but merely a way to share emotional responses to certain pieces of music and perhaps encourage others to give the album a listen, as well.*