In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking songs about specific states.
Like so much of Bon Iver’s output, “Wisconsin” favors suggestive mood over literal lyrics. It’s tough to untangle that mood from the album’s backstory: Would For Emma, Forever Ago sound like winter personified if we didn’t know Justin Vernon made it over the course of one isolated Wisconsin winter? And does that knowledge translate to a different listening experience for Wisconsinites?
Either way, the album feels like coming home for me, traveling northward from Chicago through a wintry landscape. The snow gets denser, the land goes from smooth and flat to rolling and textured, and the heaviness of homecoming settles like snow on a roof. “Wisconsin,” For Emma’s iTunes bonus track, acts as a period on the album, a punctuation mark denoting the end of something and the beginning of something else. Vernon shouts, “That was Wisconsin, that was yesterday” after a verse in his stylistically soft, mumbled falsetto. But that declaration is followed with, “Now I have nothing that I can keep / Because every place I go I take another place with me,” each line softer than the one before. It’s like he’s trying to pull away from his home and where he is before retreating into the knowledge that he’ll always carry his past with him.
Vernon told American Public Media about For Emma: “These stories all happen during the winter, because about February every year is when it gets really hard… I think it’s about time for the ground to start thawing and I think it’s when people’s hearts really start to give out. I think that’s when you remember it the most.” Even in interviews Vernon speaks obliquely about his subject, but you can understand if you’ve lived through winter anywhere—not just in Wisconsin. There’s a suffering unique to winter that includes the cold and the darkness but goes deeper, causing something like loneliness. That loneliness finds company with heartache and isolation in “Wisconsin,” a place you can suffer through but never really get away from. Like winter.