An Album for the Time of Coronavirus

By Allen Harder

The pandemic has soared to new heights as we approach six million cases in the U.S. alone. However, the media and entertainment industry have also grown significantly in this six month period, nearing our seventh, in this long pandemic era. Streaming services across all platforms such as music, podcasts and movies/TV shows have grown to immeasurable popularity among many families and individuals in America. Whether it be Netflix, Disney Plus or even Spotify, Americans have started to rely heavily on the prosperity of these services to divert our attention from Covid-19. 

I have gravitated towards calmer music during these unprecedented times. Justin Vernon, better known by his stage presence as Bon Iver, has stuck out to me as quite a prolific figure within the indie folk music industry, with his breakout/debut studio album “For Emma, Forever Ago.” A breakup album recorded and resided in a remote cabin within the woods of Eau Claire, Wis., it opens with the track “Flume,” the firm strum of guitar and the eerie ambient noise that are both carried throughout the entire track. This introduces the tone and theme throughout the rest of the album. The repeated use of words and phrases within each song deliver this ceaseless feeling of numbness and an atmosphere of melancholy. 

“Lump Sum” works away at the feeling of regret, depression and a hard breakup with his girlfriend. A chorus of almost angelic-like singers format the track and continue with almost a sound of mourning. The song begins with “Sold my cold knot, a heavy stone” implying that Vernon sold his wedding ring, though the ring not only signified marriage but the strings attached (ones that are vital to a relationship with anyone). He sees these commitments and promises have fallen short in a relationship he loved. However, it wasn’t enough for the two people within the relationship. The relationship had gone cold and the feelings weren’t evident anymore.  As a society we have similarly gotten to a point of being stagnant and facing obstacles we can’t see. 

The following songs “The Wolves (Act I and Act 2),” “Creature Fear,” and “Blindsided” all go along with a nearly indistinguishable sub theme of longing. All three of these songs reflect on how a relationship failed and how things could have been. This is where the album takes its third and final turn: from the feeling of sadness to longing and to the final destination of Vernon finding meaning in his relationship, he concludes his last three songs with a sense of revelation, although he doesn’t entirely accept knowing he will not be with the one whom he loved. Though he does know that beginnings always hide themselves in ends, as “Re: Stacks” literally ends this album with the bitter sweet acceptance of loss, guilt and a state of sadness. The “stacks” referred to repeatedly in this song are synonymous with poker chips. The poker chips he keeps ‘“throwing down two hundred at a time” symbolize love. He keeps giving more to this relationship yet he finds himself falling short each time. The track ends with him not letting go, but rather moving on. 

An album filled with beautiful chord progressions, and poetic like structures, the tracks do lack in distinguishable and noticeable differences, though that’s how Justin Vernon conveys that feeling of monotonous love and numbness. “For Emma, Forever Ago,” an anomaly within the folk alternative genre, successfully conveys the state of our lives today. The struggle and the act of overcoming wildlife fires, COVID-19, climate change and political unrest throughout our world are all illustrated in the themes of this track. Though as Vernon pointed out through despair and lack of change, you as a person can be better and better. To move on you have to commit with yourself and love yourself in times in which everything is against you.