My introduction to Bon Iver came from the most unexpected of places: therapy. I suffer from an anxiety disorder, and after I graduated from college and moved out to Los Angeles I struggled with the enormity of being on my own in a huge city where I didn’t really know anyone aside from my roommate and some other friends who had migrated out here with us. After getting assessed at UCLA’s giant medical plaza — it’s seriously like its own town — I was referred to a therapist in Beverly Hills, which was a bit surreal. I mean, considering how many shrinks there must be in Beverly Hills it’s not surprising at all that I wound up over there, but still, it was definitely surreal to spend my Sunday mornings driving around a completely deserted Beverly Hills to see a therapist like I was some kind of famous person. Anyway, I really clicked with her and we shared a lot of the same music taste. When I asked her what her favorite band was, she said, “Bon Iver,” to which I replied, “Bahn E-what?” (It’s pronounced Bahn E-Vare.)
My therapist was roughly ten years older than I am — one of the rules of therapy is that you’re sort of denied specific personal details about your therapist — so she is well-versed in all the ’90s alternative rock I love, and I fully expected her to say her favorite band was the Smashing Pumpkins or something. Bon Iver, however? Not on my radar. When I saw that Bon Iver’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago made a lot of best of the decade lists, I decided I’d better give it a listen. It’s not one of those albums that grabs you the first time through; I can remember kind of scratching my head initially. But it deepens with each listen, which most albums can’t say, as more and more layers bubble up to the surface. For Emma, Forever Ago is just a gorgeous album with wide landscapes dotted with soaring, aching vocal harmonies. The vocals feel sort of muted the first few times through, but once you get used to each song, that’s when Justin Vernon — who, for all intents and purposes, is Bon Iver — truly shines.
I’m a sucker for albums with atmosphere, and I have to say, For Emma, Forever Ago is simply exquisite in the way it captures the mood inside that Wisconsin cabin to which Vernon is now famous for retreating in order to recuperate from losing his band, his girlfriend and his health. (He was suffering from mono, apparently.) One of the most frustrating parts of being in therapy is spending a lot of time talking to someone you know almost nothing about. At least, that was my experience. My therapist is someone I came to have great admiration for, now that I think about it. It’s just a bizarre experience, feeling like you know someone when really you don’t. In our all-too-brief time together I got a very well-drawn idea of her personality, but not of her. It’s actually the opposite of a real relationship, now that I think about it, since actual relationships always have a context of some sort. You always know someone from work or from school or from this or that.
There’s always a function there that’s a large part of how you relate to someone. When you talk to a therapist, there’s no societal function, no common bond whatsoever to help you relate to that person. The reason why your therapist’s personal details are forbidden is to prevent you from forming those common bonds; the purpose of therapy is to create a scenario where all that’s in the room is what you bring in with you. Nevertheless, some details do come out; it’s impossible to create a complete vacuum, and a vacuous therapy chamber wouldn’t work anyway since when you talk, it has to be about something. (A therapy session usually has a pretty natural flow. Sometimes you’re talking about important/heavy things, but it’s usually a balance. It’s how actual conversations play out most of the time. Seriously, the next time you’re on the phone for an hour, try to keep track of how often you’re talking about something really hard and how much time you’re spending just shooting the breeze.)
Anyway, my therapist and I talked about music sometimes, since that’s such a major interest for me and it isn’t a taboo (i.e., too personal) subject for her. I found it genuinely strange that she would volunteer some information about herself without me even asking about it, such as being a vegan or hailing from Michigan, but on other things that I would deem even more trivial, she would flatly refuse. So when she told me For Emma, Forever Ago was her favorite album, I was ecstatic. I was determined to listen to it and perform my own crappy, third-rate Freudian analysis of how it applied to our situation. I spotted it at the library not long after learning of its existence and gave it a whirl. The circumstances surrounding my discovery of For Emma, Forever Ago and the formation of my subsequent impressions of it are astonishingly complex, but once I heard the album, I forgot about all the context. I never asked my therapist why it’s her favorite. I figured she wouldn’t tell me if I asked, but at the same time, I didn’t want to know. Sometimes life’s mysteries are more interesting than their answers.