I have this odd habit of multitasking; I open a book, get comfy, put on my ear plugs, and listen to music. I still haven’t figured out how I do it – eat words and drown them with rhythm and chords and guitar riffs. I just kind of do.
I remember the first time I heard “Skinny Love.” Oh god, I remember it like it just happened yesterday. I was reading Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Snuff, and I was playing a mix tape I downloaded from one of my Tumblr pals. I wasn’t paying much attention to the mix, I thought I just needed something to accompany Palahniuk’s obscure choice of words so I listened and read and then this track started to play. I don’t know what sold me to Bon Iver. Was it a) the prose b) Justin Vernon’s voice c) the dormant feelings released from the vaults I thought I locked with the most powerful of spells d) all of the above?
Skinny Love is the third track of Bon Iver’s album, For Emma, Forever Ago. I knew, the moment I heard this, I had to get the band’s full discography and was I wrong? For Emma, Forever Ago is one of the most heartbreaking, gut wrenching post break up albums there is. It will bring you back to the first time you felt the sting of betrayal, the first real time you got your heart beaten down to pulps, that time you had to mask the pang of rejection. All in one album.
Emma is not a person. Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma is a pain you cannot erase. – Justin Vernon
How could you not love this album when we’ve all had our own little versions of Emma? At one point in our lives, we were sadly stuck in that stinking rut only Justin Vernon knew better than all of us. While I turn to orchestrating my demise by soaking my innards with cheap alcohol and familiar faces, he made a record about his pain, his loss. Isn’t it swell how a single person’s music echo the rest of the world’s pain? It’s like you need not say anything because he said it all; he had the courage to reveal our souls through well-written verses, words we cannot, on our own, utter.
Pitchfork: So is Emma a real person, and is that her real name?
Justin Vernon: Real person. real name. I won’t divulge too much, but it’s not a fake name. And it’s not a fake person. I guess that’s the best answer I can say: It’s not a fake name and it’s not a fake person. But it’s not her real name and it’s not a real person either. Do you get what I’m saying? If it wasn’t for this person’s privacy, I’d be able to talk pretty freely about this subject on a personal level. The record’s about not her. It’s about my struggles through years of dealing with the aftermath of lost love and longing and just mediocrity and just bad news, like life stuff. And in the [record], where the title comes from, the lyrics are actually a conversation between me and another girl, not this Emma character.
Pitchfork: Is the person aware of it? What was their reaction?
JV: Nothing really changed. I explained to her what I explained to you: “This isn’t about you– as selfish as that sounds. It’s about me. It’s about all the shit that I dealt with and I didn’t deal with.” But in any situation with long love, I don’t think it ever really goes away fully. You just sort of learn where to keep it.
Pitchfork: Did this record help you find that place? Was it healing?
JV: It was the most cathartic experience of my entire life.
Whenever I get my share of life pains, I go back to what Justin Vernon said. I look back to the time I felt I thought I was going to lose it but I did not. When I felt most vulnerable, that time I believed I was done with everything, that point when I gave up because I couldn’t move my feet. I go back, relearn how I coped with those hardships, and tell myself this: Oh, look! You’re still here. Feel your legs, you can still move them, yeah? Right. Keep moving, then.
The pain may not go away fully but at least I now know where to keep it.