Bon Iver’s “Holocene” is an ethereal, rule-breaking wander through the depths of memory and identity, forming a gorgeous roadmap 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 I’ll instead say 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 is musical.
Song structures that go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus? That’s a meme. Drum patterns that go boom-tss-clap-tss? A meme. (An wildly successful one, too.) Slowly-strummed acoustic guitars? You get the idea. This vocabulary of memes makes music easier to share amongst ourselves and strengthens its evocative capacity.
Musical grammar offers wonderful tools, but you don’t always need it. If you and I want to communicate with each other, knowing proper English is a good place to start — but sometimes a technically-incorrect “I’m literally dead!” is better at getting the point across, rules be damned. And, particularly in creative pursuits, I’m all for blazing a trail off the beaten path.
This might contribute to my near-cultish and never-disappointed love for Bon Iver’s music, which always seems to do whatever you least 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 explore how my favorite song breaks the rules — and why.
A defining characteristic of “Holocene” is its use of familiar instruments in unfamiliar contexts. The finger-picked acoustic guitar is the most consistent, central instrument in the song and functions as the its melodic center — not an unusual role for an acoustic to have. What’s less usual is its other role: 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 indications of tempo, 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 downplayed, just supporting the cadence of the guitars, and by the time it’s introduced, the ear has already decided on the guitars as their primary source of rhythm. It’s a rule-breaking role-reversal, with the acoustic guitars establishing the rhythm and the drums bolstering it — the exact inverse of what our musical vocabulary primes us to expect.
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 another defiance 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, un-anchoring the audience from the harbor of familiarity. Decontextualized and suddenly foreign, every sound defies expectation, demanding that your ears engage with them — and the larger whole they comprise — 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 ambiance, his lyrics describe the recontextualization of memories. The third verse mentions two Christmas memories — first, a hazy vignette of him and his brother, sneaking around late at night, hoping to catch Santa Claus in the act. Vernon’s lyrics are more connotative than descriptive, mirroring the nature of old memories. Their details are sparse but their meanings vividly intact, preserved in the mind like prehistoric geckos in amber.
The second Christmas memory is of Vernon and his brother, sneaking around late at night, presumably smoking weed: “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 and the focus of its abstract, often-inscrutable lyricism. They’re also 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. Each time a memory is recalled, it adopts more features of the rememberer in place of the original information, simultaneously becoming more connected to our present selves and less reflective of our pasts.
We are continuously redefining our memories — and yet we are continuously defined by our memories. M. John Harrison put 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, all viewed through the lens of memory. But the song is less concerned with the images themselves than the lens; the shifting surface through which these moments emerge and slip back into again. The mysterious nature 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 songs.
Initially-sad experiences can be recalled fondly if they cause you to change for the better. Joyous memories can transmute into bittersweet nostalgia. The same principle applies to music: Songs that once felt lonely can become heartwarming, and vice versa. Music and memories never mean the same thing twice.
People say that change is the only constant in life. Ironically, this aphorism is at least as old as Ancient Greece, which makes the idea itself pretty constant. Its perpetual relevance seems to contradict the very logic it describes, but the reason it endures is because we still consider it to be true, even though its endurance is the best example of why it’s not true, but… now I have a headache.
The only way to escape this infinite logic loop is to realize that change is a concept, not a solid object; change is anything that represents change. Both the aforementioned aphorism and “Holocene,” by virtue of being representations of impermanence, are exempt from it. Everything either becomes transience or succumbs to it.
“Holocene” finds a solid definition of memories by not insisting that the definition be solid. Vernon understands that his (and everyone’s) memories have no fixed topology; their form is never constant because transience is their only constant form.
“Holocene” is a perfect paradox: a concretized model of a fluid, intangible concept; an unspecific-but-descriptive, unfamiliar-but-intimate work of art. It’s best understood like a memory: if you try to organize the details, you’ll get confused. But if you focus on the emotion, you’ll know all you need to know — and you won’t even need to try.
At least, that’s what I remember hearing last time.
PS: Thanks for reading everything I wrote. I hope it was as much a joy for you as it was for me.