Favourite Albums

Favourite Albums: Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

Back before I had a name for this mental illness of mine—I hesitate to call it ‘depression’, as I have never been formally diagnosed, though I’m reasonably sure that’s what it is—I didn’t really talk about how I felt. I knew I was miserable, I knew I wasn’t sure why, and I thought that if I talked about it, people would think I was weak. People would think I was lying because outwardly I wasn’t depressed at all. People would be worried—and this I was sure of—that I would become needy, terrible company; the type of person who sits in the corner of the party alone all night drinking themselves into a stupor before destroying a priceless piece of the host’s mother’s art and getting into a sloppy fistfight with their best friend. No, I couldn’t tell people how I felt. What would they all think of me?

The one thing I was honest about, though, was my insomnia. I’ve slept badly for as long as I can remember, but back in college, when my first really serious downward spiral began, I slept very badly. Two or three times a week I wouldn’t sleep at all; I’d get into bed at around midnight, stew in my thoughts until four o’clock, realise that it was an effort in futility, at which point I’d get up, turn the light on, and maybe read, write awful poetry, or play video games. Mostly, though, I’d stay in bed, smoke countless cigarettes out of my bedroom window and watch Bill Hicks perform stand up comedy. (Sometimes I still do this.)

Come eight o’clock in the morning, I’d either get into bed and finally fall asleep, missing college in the process—college and I had a turbulent relationship to say the least—or I’d neck three cups of coffee from my big Seattle mug (think Sports Direct mug, but bigger) and head off down the hill to not listen to a word my teachers were saying. Usually, I’d drink two or three more cups of coffee over the course of the day, which made me feel worse. I’ve since quit drinking coffee, and only very rarely consume caffeine at all.

My best friend, Chris, was around in those not-so-halcyon days, and I distinctly remember one morning he came over early for college and I’d not slept all night. I was still in bed and, typically for me, as it was seven in the morning I was just falling asleep. He made himself a coffee and sat on the bed as I napped, watching short films on Youtube. (The one that sticks out was Martin Scorsese’s The Big Shave.) He didn’t care about going to college, either. We lay on my bed, chatting in the moments I drifted back into consciousness, until midday. I don’t remember what we did after that, but it probably wasn’t much more than sitting around, drinking coffee and laughing. That seemed to be all we’d do.

But one day at college, I stumbled across Birdy’s cover of ‘Skinny Love’. I’d heard the Bon Iver original before, of course, but not for a long time; and I played her cover of it over and over for a few days and sleepless nights. That is, until my friend Sean caught me listening to it in the library, scolded me, and insisted that I put on the Bon Iver original, specifically the Later… With Jools Holland version.

That version is still my favourite. Right near the end, in the final chorus, when Justin Vernon’s voice breaks as he howls ‘who the hell was I’, it seems as though he is going to burst into tears. Listening to this version, as I sat in the school library, I was astounded at Vernon’s vocal capacity, and to this day it is a reminder of how talented a singer he is, both in a studio and when performing live. The studio version of this track is dissatisfying in comparison.

I suppose I have Sean to thank partially for my now indelible love of Bon Iver. Had he not forced me to stop listening to the Birdy cover of ‘Skinny Love’, I would not have gone home a few evenings later and listened to For Emma, Forever Ago in full—and had I not done that, I would not have found a cure for my insomnia.

I had been listening to the album on repeat (this seems to be a reiterative, echoing line in my blog posts. Evidently it is the only way I know how to listen to music) for some days, and I decided that it would be nice to listen to while I attempted, in the knowledge that it would most likely be a futile endeavour, to sleep.

I played the album at an extremely low volume, from my phone, plugged into my speakers. It was so quiet that it was almost inaudible; as I lay in bed, it felt as though the album was a very distant sea, so far away that one had to really listen to be able to hear the waves crashing against the rocks. Bits and pieces were clearer than others; the low pitch of the kick drum, for instance, on ‘Lump Sum’; the sudden spurts of energy on ‘Wolves (Act I & II)’. Some evenings, I would slip into swift dozes in the gaps between the lightly strummed chords of the latter, or drift off to constant repetition of the former. The second act of ‘Wolves’ would not be so potent if it weren’t for the disjointed, free-flowing nature of the first, and it remains one of my favourite tracks on this album, and one of my favourite Bon Iver tracks.

The mornings I woke up without setting an alarm after listening to this album (which were many, may I add; at one point I was coming home every evening and putting this album on, for fear if I stopped listening I would not be able to sleep again), I woke up around the same time: somewhere near the end of ‘Blindsided’, just as it is reaching its heart-wrenching climax. It was odd to me that I used to fall asleep (somewhere in the first few moments of ‘Creature Fear’, before it stabbed me back awake very suddenly around 1:10) and wake up at around the same time every evening and morning. I didn’t think about it too much, though. All that mattered was that I was finally sleeping. And I slept a lot. Someone once told me that it’s impossible to catch up on sleep – once you’ve lost it, it’s lost forever. Those few months I managed to sleep, though, are evidence that this is not the case.

And then, like the sinking feeling one gets when one realises that one doesn’t love their partner any more, something changed. I went to bed one night, put the album on, and it didn’t have the same hypnotic, mesmerising effect on me that it once had. Instead of drifting off to the spaces between the sounds, instead of quietly dozing and only half listening, I could actually hear the album; I had become accustomed to it. And my insomnia returned.

Luckily, though, my love of the album didn’t dissipate. Though it doesn’t help me sleep any more, it does bring me a lot of joy, as odd as that may sound considering how melancholy this record is. This album is associated with an extremely bad time in my life, and not only because I was sleeping terribly—but there was something about ‘For Emma’ which just had so much hope, so much joy in it, that it didn’t matter. That song felt like Bon Iver telling me everything was going to be okay; those horns were piercing in a way, their dissonance pleasing to the ears. It made no difference that, even after looking them up, the lyrics made no sense to me—Bon Iver’s music has never been about the words. Vernon has always tried to use his instrument as a voice, tried to use it to compliment the music rather than convey a distinct meaning. The meaning of his lyrics is secondary to how his vocals change the meaning of the music.

As the album slowly rolls into the final and my favourite track, ‘re: stacks’, the record is telling me that it’s okay to feel sad, that it’s okay to cry, that it’s okay to feel totally overcome with pain. The closing song really is the perfect capitulation of a record made in a log cabin out in the woods—it’s so simple, so clean, and yet it feels authentic. And even though the song seems totally hopeless, somehow, those four chords make it all okay again.

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