Bon Iver’s “Holocene” is an ethereal, rule-breaking wander through the depths of memory and identity, forming a gorgeous road map of not just Justin Vernon’s memories, but the nature of memories themselves.
Must Peep Monday #25
Whether we realize it or not, there’s a musical grammar we all share. I hate to describe music as having “rules,” so let’s instead say that there’s an implicitly understood set of memes it uses to convey meaning. And truly, they are memes: Ideas shared between people that carry meaning and get absorbed into the cultural dialect. In this case, the dialect just happens to be musical.
Song structures that go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus? That’s a meme. Drum patterns that go boom-tss-clap-tss? Meme. (An enormously successful one, too.) Slowly-strummed acoustic guitars? You get the idea. This musical meme language makes songs easier to share with others and strengthens their evocative capacity.
Musical grammar offers wonderful tools, but you don’t always need it. If you want to speak with me, knowing proper English is a good place to start — but sometimes a technically-incorrect “I’m literally dead!” gets the point across best, grammar rules be damned. And particularly in creative pursuits, I’m all for blazing a trail off the beaten grammatical path.
This may contribute to my near-cultish and never-disappointed love for the music of Bon Iver, which always seems to do whatever you don’t expect. The smash hit “Holocene” from 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver is particularly rebellious, and I’m here on Must Peep Monday one last time (ugh, heartbreaking) to dissect the rules it breaks — and why.
A defining characteristic of “Holocene” is its use of familiar instruments in unfamiliar contexts and applications. The finger-picked acoustic guitar is the most consistent, central instrument in the song and functions as the song’s melodic center — not an unusual role for an acoustic to have. What’s less usual is the other role it has: spearheading the rhythm.
The first verse has only the voice of Justin Vernon (the creative mind behind Bon Iver) and his guitar. With no other indicators, the ear learns to lean on the guitar’s arpeggios to find the rhythm. More and more percussion emerges as the song progresses, but it’s subtle, downplayed to a support role, and by the time it’s introduced, the ear has already latched onto the guitars as the lead rhythm. It’s a rule-breaking, inverted relationship with the acoustic guitars establishing the rhythm and the drums bolstering and accentuating it. The musical memes we know prime us to expect the opposite.
In the hovering, ambiguous space between the second chorus and the third verse, the acoustic guitars are absent for the first time, leaving us with only the soft, atmospheric, incoherent needling of brass instruments. This is yet another inversion of expected roles: The brass family is known for its strong, bold statements, not its atmospheric capabilities — and yet, shy and distant, fluttering amongst each other like fireflies in the evening, they shine.
What you’re used to hearing do this does that, and what you expect to do that does this. “Holocene” redefines the prescribed “jobs” of each instrument, disorienting the audience and unanchoring them from the harbor of familiar reference points. Decontextualized and suddenly foreign, each sound defies assumption, demanding that your ears engage with that sound — and the larger whole it builds — on the level of immediate experience.
In the same way that Vernon recontextualizes an acoustic guitar into a rhythm-keeper, or a brass section into a gentle bed of atmosphere, his lyrics describe the recontextualization of memories and our relation to them. The third verse mentions two Christmas memories — first, a hazy vignette of staying awake with his brother, trying to catch Santa Claus in the act. Vernon’s lyrics are more connotative than descriptive, mirroring the nature of old memories, their details sparse but emotions vividly intact, preserved in the mind like prehistoric geckos in amber.
The second Christmas memory is of Vernon and his brother sneaking out to smoke weed (hell yeah): “We smoked the screen to make it what it was to be / Now to know it in my memory.” Christmas itself changes here, morphing into “what it was to be” with a sense of inevitability. Christmas Eve means three very different things when you’re six, twelve, and eighteen. These two memories mark turning points in that changing significance, and in showing Vernon’s changing relationship to Christmas, they also show Vernon’s changes as a person.
Recontextualization and redefinition are the approach of “Holocene”’s stunning, ethereal composition, the focus of its abstract, gestural lyricism, and the very nature of memories and identities themselves. Holocene illustrates the ever-changing ways in which our memories define us at the same time as who we are defines how we remember them.
Memory commits you to the nuance, the fog. If you act on memory, you commit yourself on the basis of echoes. No basis on which to inch out across your life — and yet all you have. -M. John Harrison
You know deep-fried memes? Gen Z’s beloved visual aesthetic? We like to think memory works like a photo library, where you select a picture, look at it, and return it to the shelf, but it’s actually closer to deep-frying. Images get re-rendered through a less-than-flawless process so many times they begin to take on more characteristics of the process itself than the source content.
The brain likes to do things the easy way, so when you remember something, instead of thinking all the way back to the original events, it just remembers the last time you remembered it. It’s like having a drawing described to you and then having to redraw it from that. What you put back on “the shelf” is not the original, but the redrawn version — continuously redrawn every time it’s recalled.
Over time, these drawings become more representative of our own “drawing” styles than the source image as our predispositions seep into the image and eclipse the initial content. The more important memories are recalled, the more they adopt features of the rememberer in place of the original information, simultaneously becoming more personally meaningful and less accurate.
We are continuously redefining our memories, and yet we are continuously defined by our memories. A favorite quote of mine, from M. John Harrison, puts it beautifully: “Memory commits you to the nuance, the fog. If you act on memory, you commit yourself on the basis of echoes. No basis on which to inch out across your life — and yet all you have.”
“Holocene” is, like any Bon Iver song, colorfully impressionistic, its images radiant in the center and hazy around the edges. These images in “Holocene” are of insignificance, love, and family, but as viewed through the lens of memory. The song is less concerned with the images themselves than the shifting sea that contains them; the surface through which these moments emerge and slip back underneath again. The mysterious weirdness of memory is the true core of “Holocene.”
Memories really are weird; a plunging reservoir of fragmented mishmash, occasionally punctuated by hyper-focused, detail-rich moments preserved seemingly at random and with little obligation to the objective truth. They are bright in the middle and blurry at the edges — like out-of-focus Christmas lights, like swarms of fireflies, and just like Bon Iver’s music.
Initially sad experiences can be recalled fondly if they cause you to change for the better. Joyous memories can transmute into bittersweet nostalgia. Songs that once felt lonely can become heartwarming, and vice versa. Music — and memory itself — never means the same thing twice.
People say that change is the only constant in life. The shifting tides that pull every song’s meaning to and fro seem to ignore “Holocene,” which by virtue of being about the endless consistency of change, has the same enduring truth as the aphorism (first quoted in Ancient Greece — pretty damn enduring, I’d say). “Holocene” acknowledges this transience and still manages to concretize an image of memory’s undulating surface; charting its topography in a way that holds true while leaving space for its perpetually shifting form.
At least, that’s what I remember hearing. Who knows what I’ll hear next time.