Surely, you’ve experienced the scene I’m about to describe: It’s late, you’re sprawled on the couch, your boyfriend or girlfriend is already in bed, and you’re flipping around the channels. You land on some kind of drama, and it’s almost over—you get to it just in time to see a girl silhouetted against a black night, looking at the camera, saying, “I’m sorry, but I …” She looks down, bites her lip. “I—can’t.” And the camera shifts to show a boy, nodding in a show of false understanding. She turns to go, walking off down a streetlight-lit sidewalk, and he pauses, watching her go, before turning back, away from her and towards the world. Cue music.
The song is propped up only by a rusty and hazy acoustic guitar, the broken vocal lines Scotch-taped together into a cracked harmony. It could be just about any of the tunes off of Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, catching at your heartstrings, but not pulling them so much as just reminding you they’re there. There, there, they say. This is a rough patch, but smoother seas are ahead.
Bon Iver is mostly just one man, Justin Vernon, who recorded these songs in his father’s Northwestern Wisconsin cabin following the dissolution of his band, DeYarmond Edison. His eerie falsetto recalls Antony and the Johnsons, the creepy lean of the tunes Devendra Banhart, or maybe TV on the Radio in an alternate universe without electricity. But stronger than the album’s resemblance to any other band’s is its resemblance to a curio. This is a discovery record, one to treasure for quiet moments like the ones it so effectively documents.
The tape hisses quietly into action as you hear Vernon adjust himself before the ghostly acoustic of “Skinny Love” shuffles in. Then a brother joins it, a guitar not doubling the first so much as sidling up next to it, and when Vernon sings the first weary verse, he doubles his own vocal. “Come on skinny love, just last the year / Pour a little salt we were never here / My my my, my my my, my my / Staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer.” It’s bitter, but forgiving—the kind of song that could make you cry for no reason you can quite determine.
That’s why the notion that it should be soundtracking a tender moment on a TV drama isn’t a knock on “Skinny Love” or the other tracks on For Emma, Forever Ago. Moments like that, whether they’re playing out on the big screen, the small screen, or right in front of you, need songs like these, and Vernon’s done an incredible job of allowing them to do this unfussy job, to stand quietly in support for a time when we can’t quite figure what to make of what we’re feeling.
“Skinny Love” from For Emma, Forever Ago