In Rotation: For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver

In Rotation: For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver

While often noted as a band, Justin Vernon’s solo project, Bon Iver, consists of tracks that are all tracks written by, performed vocally by, recorded by, and produced by him. His use of lyricism on his debut album gave listeners no doubt that he would become huge in the folk and indie scene. Since this album’s release in 2007, Justin has put out 3 more albums as well as 3 EPs, all of which he heavily experiments on, whether it be lyrically, vocally, or production wise. Despite it being more than 16 years since the album was released, it remains one of my all-time favorites; I believe that it will never get old and will become a classic within the folk and indie/alternative genres. So, let’s get into the breakdown–



Lump Sum

Skinny Love

The Wolves (Act I and II)


Creature Fear


For Emma

Re: Stacks


1. Flume 

Synopsis– On the opening track of this album, Justin recounts the pain that a previous relationship has caused him, and depicts his attempt to try and escape the constant hurt that he feels when reliving these events. Justin has mentioned that this song was something very new to him vocally and that it felt “insane” when recording. He is able to be so vague and secretive with what he is trying to say, yet he expresses his feelings seamlessly. 

Lyric Pullouts– 

Only love is all maroon

Gluey feathers on a flume (Chorus)

Maroon is the color of dried blood and seems to be what the mention of this shade is representing in Justin’s words. This phrase expresses that not only is love painful and a source of hurt, but it also doesn’t look all that pretty once it’s over. In addition to this, maroon can also (although not as frequently) be used as a verb, meaning to “leave (someone) trapped and isolated in an inaccessible place.” So, he could also be saying that love, more specifically the pain that comes from it, is something that causes him to be isolated and trapped in some way. A flume is defined as a “a deep narrow channel or ravine with a stream running through it.” He is drifting down this flume of his own creation because of his fault of getting in this painful relationship, and can’t help but to acknowledge this as his fault.

I am my mother on the wall

With us all

I move in water, shore to shore (Verse 2)

I interpret this line as him kind of looking at a photo of his mother on the wall at his family’s home, realizing the pieces of her that are embedded in his as well as his entire family. This gives him a sort of comfort, knowing that she’ll always be there for and with him, no matter how far she may be. This also adds a sense of trapped-ness (reference to the chorus) in being a part of the picture, but the following line acts as an escape, the movement in the water freeing him from the seemingly inescapability of the framed photo.

Justin’s Commentary– When speaking about this track in an interview, Justin said “After growing up in a Neil Young/Bob Dylan/Indigo Girls/John Prine subjective-songwriter kind of world, I finally realized I didn’t have what they had, or I couldn’t do it as well, or I wasn’t exploring deep enough. The subconscious thing I figured out in “Flume” started giving me more meaning. When we play live, “Flume” is still the song I can get lost in the most. The images in that song are more mysterious, yet more visual to me…I attempted to build odd landscapes that you could exist in that had weird feelings but also cool-sounding words…I really wanted to go deep.” (via Pitchfork) 

2. Lump Sum 

Synopsis– Justin utilizes metaphors throughout “Lump Sum,” with the entire song being one big metaphor. He expresses his want to trade in the pain and emotions that he has been feeling for a new start; he no longer wants to remain in the place that he is in as it continues to hurt him constantly. He is eager to let go of the things that are a burden to him and begin somewhat of a new life, escaping from all that pains him.

Lyric Pullouts– 

In my arbor ’til my ardor trumped

Every inner inertia, lump sum

All at once

Rushing from the sump pump” (Verse 2) 

These lines are incredibly cryptic and awfully hard for the general audience to decode. Justin shows his listeners the optimism that he holds as he seems devoted to trying to recover in a sense from the hardships that he has been facing. A lump sum is “a single payment made at a particular time, as opposed to a number of smaller payments or installments” which symbolizes Justin’s singular decision to change his life’s path instead of trying to patch his problems with short term solutions. 

Or so the story goes

Balance we won’t know

We will see when it gets warm (Verse 2)

His use of the phrase “or so the story goes” seems to express that these are things that he’s been told and might not quite believe, but decides to in order to hold out hope. Unlike the last series of lines, these are very literal and straightforward. He’s tired of the lifestyle he’s been living and wants to do all he can to change it. He also conveys his hopefulness for once the winter passes, the warmth of the sun will also bring warmth to his emotions, allowing him to feel better than he has.

3. Skinny Love

Synopsis– This song depicts the events of a failing relationship, that eventually fails completely, and the regret that the speaker has with trying to keep it alive for as long as he did. This love that he has for his partner is unreciprocated by her and he can’t help but feel extremely hurt that she no longer truly cares for him. He knows that even though he wants to be with her, the pain is not worth staying together.

Lyric Pullouts– 

Come on, skinny love, just last the year

Pour a little salt, we were never here” (Verse 1)

As stated in his commentary, Justin has defined “skinny love” as a love that has no weight, it’s unnourished, and therefore is unable to survive the heaviness of a relationship. He is pleading for this love to continue, although there is the fact that it will not thrive. It’s something that is important to him so he does not want it to end. His expression of pouring salt references the act of pouring salt on a wound, something that will help to heal said wound, but causes immense pain. He wants for the relationship to heal and the love to grow, even if it means forcing there to be more pain in order for it to go away.

And in the morning I’ll be with you

But it will be a different kind

And I’ll be holding all the tickets

And you’ll be owning all the fines (Chorus 1)

Justin knows that this relationship can and will not last and despite his best efforts to keep it afloat, he has come to the realization that it is something that he needs to let go of in order for them both to heal from the pain that it is providing. He expresses that he, like always, will see her again in the morning, yet this time he will be ending the relationship. But in this new instance, she will be the one who is being dealt pain from him instead of the usual scenario of him receiving such hurt from her. This time, he will be free, even if it will initially hurt him, he knows it’s what he needs to heal.

Justin’s Commentary– Justin commented on the song, “I’m not afraid to talk about [“Skinny Love”], but how do you guarantee it’s accurate? To say that “Skinny Love” is about Christy [his then girlfriend] would not be entirely accurate. We dated and she’s an incredibly important person that I lived with for a long time, but it’s about that time in a relationship that I was going through; you’re in a relationship because you need help, but that’s not necessarily why you should be in a relationship. And that’s skinny. It doesn’t have weight. Skinny love doesn’t have a chance because it’s not nourished.” (via Pitchfork) 

4. The Wolves (Act I and II)

Synopsis– Justin spends this track regretting his breakup with his now ex-girlfriend, even though he knows that he did so for the best. He speaks of her infidelity and all of the pain that she has brought upon him, hoping that she’ll learn from her mistakes and realize that she needs to change her actions in the future. This song is extremely direct lyrically and it is not hard to understand the ideas that Justin is trying to express to his audience. Ultimately, he wishes that the thought of their past relationship will no longer haunt him and he will find someone who does not treat him how he’s been treated.

Lyric Pullouts– 

Someday, my pain

Someday, my pain will mark you

Harness your blame

Harness your blame and walk through (Verse 1)

Justin hopes that his ex-girlfriend, who has caused him so much pain, will one day feel that pain herself and then understand how it was that she made him feel. He wishes that the new thought of what she has done will lead her to be gentler and more aware of her actions in the future, so that she does not hurt anyone else. Furthermore, he wants her to hold accountability for how she treated him and take control of the guilt that she has for the pain she has caused. Although they are no longer together, he wants her to own up to what she’s done and by doing so, move past the contents of this past relationship.

And the story’s all over you

In the morning, I’ll call you

Can’t you find a clue

When your eyes are all painted Sinatra blue? (Chorus 2)

The story being “all over” her refers to there being physical and obvious evidence of her cheating on and betraying him. He knows that he needs to confront her, but it’s likely that she will just deny everything to protect her reputation. When he does ultimately muster up the courage to do so, she acts as though she has no idea what he is even talking about, and he can’t believe that she’d act like that. His mention of her eyes being “Sinatra blue” refers to the fact that he can see the guilt in her eyes even if she won’t say anything.

5. Blindsided

Synopsis– On this song, Justin sings about the struggles that he is facing, both from his painful relationship and just the everyday obstacles that life is constantly throwing at him. He feels powerless and like he’s lost control over his life and is always overwhelmed with all that he has to deal with. Despite all of this, though, he expresses his want to move past this and searches for any hope of things getting better that he can. 

Lyric Pullouts– 

“Taut line

Down to the shoreline

The end of a bloodline

The moon is a cold light” (Verse 3)

Justin travels down to the shore to reflect on his life and his feelings, and doesn’t quite know how to feel. Throughout the song, he sings of his depression and despair, having no hope for the outlook of his life and trying to find a reason to stay. He’s thinking about how this drastic choice could end his family’s entire bloodline, but also sees no reason to continue with. The cold light from the moon is harsh and only illuminates the awful things going on in his life.

“There’s a pull to the flow

My feet melt the snow

For the irony, I’d rather know

‘Cause blinded

I was blindsided” (Chorus 3) 

As he’s stood on the shore looking in at the flow of the water, he thinks about how it could almost just pull him in and take him away if he’d allow it, getting rid of him and his pain without any real trace. In a more hopeful sense, he could be thinking over how it could wash away the hurt that he is feeling and get him as far away from these events as possible. Luckily, as the song progresses, his mention of “I am blindsided” turns to “I was blindsided,” which expresses that he may feel no longer in the dark or hidden from the reality of what is going on, which lets him feel more in control and so he no longer has to worry as much.

6. Creature Fear

Synopsis– There are a number of ways that this song could be interpreted, and all ways are completely valid, as the words that Justin says are extremely vague and cryptic. The meaning with the highest likelihood, though, is that he is singing about the contents and events of a relationship that have brought him to an extremely hard place in his life, following the themes presented throughout the rest of the album. He expresses his feelings of regret in spending so much time with one person, especially someone who he knows is not good for him, and feels like a fool for doing so. 

Lyric Pullouts– 

I was full by your count

I was lost but your fool

Was a long visit wrong?

Say you are the only (Verse 1)

At the top of their time together, he was completely satisfied with what she had to offer to him, his presence was enough to bring him joy and this was initially something that made him happy and content. He was, and still is, so in love with her that he finds himself ignoring all of the signs that she’s shown of not being the greatest person to be with, and he can’t begin to imagine how long he was fooled by her disguise and believes that had they not been together for so long, he could have seen what she was hiding and avoided the situation that he is now in.

Take all on the wind on

The soft bloody nose

Sign another floor (Verse 2)

The word “wind” is a metaphor for the pain that Justin has been given, in this line he is expressing that he must take on all of this pain because that is his role in the relationship. The rest of these lyrics are also metaphors that reference all of the hurt that he has undergone and continues to feel. “The soft bloody nose” symbolizes that all that his partner has done is hurt enough to cause some sort of permanence, leaving a mark within him. The other floor being a reference to another part of his life, meaning that this is something that constantly affects him, not solely in the relationship.

7. Team

Synopsis– This song is an instrumental track, led by whistling from Justin, and serves as a transition from “Creature Fear” to “For Emma.” 

8. For Emma

Synopsis– Justin sings about the moment in which this relationship finally ends and he loses the person he loves so dearly. Although he is the one who initiated the breakup, it is extremely hard for him to get through, likely harder than it is for her, but he can no longer put up with this pain. He finds himself regretting what he’s done and wishes he could take it back, take her back, and it is evident that he still loves her so deeply. 

Lyric Pullouts– 

For every life

Forgo the parable

Seek the light (Chorus 1)

These lines are somewhat of a back and forth conversation between Justin and his partner. In the first line, he attempts to convey to her that he has something very important to say. Following this, the second line is her telling him that there is no reason for him to beat around the bush in what it is that he needs to express, and should instead just be straightforward with what it is that he needs to say. The third line of “seek the light” is the continuation of what he was trying to say before he got interrupted. He wants her to look for the good in all people and things as they part ways and is also seeking out her forgiveness.

With all your lies

You’re still very lovable

I toured the light

So many foreign roads (Chorus 2)

Despite the constant lies and broken promises that she feeds to him, he still finds it extremely hard to let go of her. He can’t help but to see all of her good qualities and tries to ignore all of the flaws that she’s presented throughout their relationship, but he cannot do so for very long. By expressing his touring of the light, he implies that he has looked for hope in the darkness of the hurt he feels. He’s had to go through so much just to try and attempt to find a sense of purpose after this extremely painful relationship.

Justin’s Commentary– During a Q&A that Justin did, he was asked, “Who’s Emma?” to which he responded, “Emma isn’t a person. Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma’s a pain that you can’t erase.” (via The New Yorker)

9. Re: Stacks

Synopsis– The final, and longest, track on this album focuses on a love that has frozen over, one that ultimately will come to an end, and how he must persevere through his hardships. He depicts his experience of facing and overcoming his struggles and despite all that hurts him, he strives to move forward. Throughout the song, he metaphorically loads up his pain onto his back, brings it with him on his journey, and unloads it where he no longer has to feel its burdens. 

Lyric Pullouts– 

“I’ve been twisting to the sun

I needed to replace

And the fountain in the front yard is rusted out

All my love was down in a frozen ground” (Verse 3) 

The sun is somewhat of a guiding light for him, but it has previously guided him in the wrong direction, so he feels as though the sun’s light needs to be “replaced” so that it can lead him towards new prospects. The “fountain” is a metaphor for Justin’s ability to give love, but now that the water has frozen, it no longer looks as pretty–which says that this love has become ugly because of its flaws and the pain that it brings.

“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 (Verse 5)

Although he is trying to work through his pain and hurt, he still cannot help but to love his past partner, even if they are unable to love him back. Despite this, though, he is doing what he can for himself to push past it and become a “new man,” one who is able to let go of this love so that it can be provided to others. He wants for his ex to know that even with all that has happened, there is no way that he could stop loving her and the love that she once gave to him is still within him, even with all of the pain and suffering he has gone through in this relationship, he still is open to a rekindling because of his feelings for her.

Justin’s Commentary– When asked about the use of “Re:” in the title, Justin replied with, “It’s ‘Regarding.’ People use it in letters and emails. It’s about pointing towards an idea, to amplify that this song is about the stacks. I mean, every song title does that in a way, but I just really wanted to point it out: this song isn’t the stacks, it’s about the stacks.” 


Overall, this album is nothing short of a masterpiece. Justin’s ability to convey extremely specific and deeply rooted emotions with ease is something that proves him to be incredibly talented. For Emma, Forever Ago is a work of art, something that is exceptionally beautiful and cannot be recreated. The only thing that I think could ever challenge this album in its respects would be Justin’s second, and self-titled album, Bon Iver. No matter who is listening to the songs on this album, there is no denying that it is wonderful. And finally–


1. For Emma

2. Skinny Love

3. Creature Fear

4. The Wolves (Act I and II)

5. Re: Stacks

6. Lump Sum

7. Flume

8. Blindsided

9. Team





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