Last week marked the 10th anniversary of the release of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, and while there is an endless horde of material discussing the album’s musical intricacies, whole forums dedicated to dissecting the meanings of the introspective lyrics, and probably a great deal of Justin Vernon fan fiction (although I haven’t researched this), I have always been more interested in what lies on top of the cover rather than underneath it. Depicting a dead tree perceived from the inside of secluded room, and with a mysterious form shrouding our view, the complexity of the image that adorns this magnificent record offers an interesting lens through which we can begin to understand FEFA a little closer.
Album covers are an integral ingredient to our experiencing of an album. When aimlessly browsing through record shops, it is the artwork that first grabs us; after downloading albums onto iTunes, the first thing I always did was download the album’s artwork as well, because I hated listening to songs on my iPod with those grey and white semiquavers posing as the official artwork; when using streaming sites like Spotify or Tidal, the artwork always accompanies the song title. As such, album covers are like a shortcut, summing up everything an album represents in a few thousand pixels. Think of a naked Kanye West straddled by a winged figure as his brilliant My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy discusses the trappings of fame and fortune, of a young man smoking with a cocky grin introducing the fresh-faced arrogance of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, or of a host of historical characters revolutionising both album covers and modern rock music in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They complete the package of an album by forming a visual link between the audio and our comprehension of it, so whenever someone mentions FEFA, my mind immediately jumps to its haunting cover art before it begins to think of any of the songs.
No wonder Daniel Murphy, who designed the Jagjaguwar artwork for FEFA confessed he went through about 20-30 different ideas before the final product was chosen; a special piece of music requires an equally as special front cover.
“We will see when it gets warm” – ‘Lump Sum’
With that in mind, it’s interesting to start by looking at what the original artwork for FEFA, when it was self-released, looked like. Reflecting the rural element of the album’s production, the original artwork mimics a wood-carving of swirling leaf-like patterns, beginning and ending with little suggestion of an ultimate destination. Cropped so that the external edges of the pattern are hidden from view, and with the inconsistent lengths of black lines, the simple design mirrors Justin Vernon’s compositions in that it is simultaneously simple and withdrawn, yet too much to take in all at once.
But, had I listened to FEFA when it had this album cover, it would have been a completely different experience; the heartache, the isolation, and the uncertainty that I see in Murphy’s artwork is absent here. Murphy’s image doesn’t just mimic the music, it evokes an additional layer of meaning from it; a physical representation of the seclusion Vernon forced himself into, which provided the catalyst for one of the greatest albums of the 21st Century.
“Saw death on a sunny snow” – ‘For Emma’
For some reason, I seem to remember being quite scared when I first listened to FEFA, and I still double take whenever I open the album on Spotify as my eyes are drawn impulsively to its artwork’s thumbnail. I’m a massive wuss at the best of times, and the strange artwork, with its hidden subject and unsettling scratch marks, always reminds me of a poster for some twisted horror movie. There was also the fear of listening to a genre I had never exposed myself to. By the time I actually had access to the internet and my own income to buy my own music, I began transitioning from listening almost solely to the commercial horseshit of Radio 1 to more diverse forms of music. And FEFA, with its remarkably uncommercial album cover, symbolised the challenge that that transition brought: not only to listen to different music, but to enjoy it as well. Either way, I remember there being something explicitly chilling about first listening to the album. And I wasn’t far off. There is a horror in FEFA that is remarkably difficult to process. There are no jump scares or atonal clichés, only pure discord and desolation woven in to the very fabric of the music itself. For that reason, even though FEFA is such a sweet listen, there is something repulsive about the artwork which distracts you while you listen and haunts you for days on end afterwards.
“And I’m breaking at the britches, and at the end of all your lines” – ‘Skinny Love’
The idea of fissure is central to FEFA, and is a concept driven home by the crooked dimensions of the artwork before you even hear Vernon’s broken voice warble into frame during ‘Flume’. The edges of the image are not clean- they’re jagged, much like the album itself, which often incorporates weakly struck guitar notes and broken vocals as part of its strengths. Likewise, the disparity between the font used for “Bon Iver” and the font used for “For Emma, Forever Ago” suggests a rupture between Vernon as a consumable artist and his extremely personal artwork. The album cover is, therefore, not perfect (in terms of construction), but natural and beautiful in its authenticity. Compare it to this alternative artwork, which blogger KSEARDESIGN produced in a project that saw them recreate the FEFA artwork in their own style. The image succeeds at portraying the album’s naturality as well as its fragility, but the concept and the text is too constructed. It seems to aim to be something, whereas Murphy’s artwork simply aims to be.
“Don’t bother me” – ‘The Wolves (Act I & II)
Upon re-listening to the album, these words from the refrain of ‘The Wolves (Act I & II) stood out to me. They hinted at the intrusive nature of listening to FEFA, how Vernon’s project of rehabilitation and reconnecting with the world are something we really shouldn’t be interfering with. Nowhere is this more evident than in the glaze that obscures around ¾ of the album cover. This obstacle is not quite condensation, or ice, or rot, but an amalgamation of them all- a barrier of utter depravity that prevents us from seeing what it hides. The visible scratch marks at the top of the pattern add to the restrictive nature, suggesting that it is a wall Vernon himself has erected between him and the outside world, a disconnection between artist and audience that we attempt to overcome by listening to FEFA. It’s like there’s something hidden within that pattern of obscurity, some hidden message or code, and like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper we obsessively scratch our way deeper into the album, when perhaps the answer lies simply on the surface.
“’Cos blinded, I was blindsided” – ‘Blindsided’
To this day, despite so many listens, FEFA still takes me by surprise. And I think a large part of that is due to the difficulty I have with its artwork. There is a cyclical relationship between an album and its cover. The cover is our introduction to the album, our first impression that, to an extent, sets up our expectations as well as our real-time experiences of the music that follows. And after finishing the album, our understanding of the music becomes framed in our visualisation of its cover, so that both the artwork influences our understanding of the music and the music influences our understanding of the artwork.
The best kinds of music transport us to a different world, and sometimes, if the relevant image permits it, the album artwork represents the destination. In the case of For Emma Forever Ago, we are transported to the hunting cabin where Vernon recorded his enchanting debut. Surrounded by the roaming, snow covered hills of a Wisconsin winter, we find freedom.
– Original artwork, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/9/9f/Originalforemmacover.jpg/220px-Originalforemmacover.jpg
– Jagjaguwar artwork, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/e/e0/Bon_iver_album_cover.jpg
– KSEARDESIGN artwork, https://kseardesign.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/bon-iver-for-emma-forever-ago/
– iTunes artwork, http://static.tumblr.com/qmraazf/ps5mjrmim/unknown-album.png
– Winter in Wisconsin, http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5175/5418614546_317a8329e1.jpg