Sometimes you hear a piece of art that makes you appreciate that the world is occupied by people who view the human experience from a different angle and then attempt to convey this alternative viewpoint back to the masses. Few are better at this than the Wisconsin musician and producer, Justin Vernon, otherwise known to the world as Bon Iver. The creator of three outstanding albums to date, Vernon is able to create an ambiance of otherworldliness in all the music he creates, whether it be as Bon Iver, or on the many featured slots that he has done with other artists such as, James Blake and Kanye West.
Personally, I feel that there is nowhere in Vernon’s discography where this ability to transport the listener to another place and time is more evident than in the song Holocene, released in 2011. This composition about a bad night out that Vernon experienced in a bar in Wisconsin, but despite the supposed simplicity of that setting, Vernon creates a audio landscape that elevates the whole narrative behind the track.
Immediately the first thing that grabs you about this track is the outrageously good instrumentation. The song begins with the intertwining guitar acoustic interlude with the faint slide guitar coming in and out, and it is impossible to not be brought along with Vernon from the second the music begins playing. For many songwriters, this introduction would be enough, the listener is now thoroughly engaged in the song, let’s keep this sentiment and ambiance going… But no, Justin Vernon decides that now is the ideal time to take the listener on a journey. The remainder of the song continues to swell and dip depending on the sentiment that Vernon is looking for at that particular moment. But it is the use of certain instruments that is most interesting about this composition. At different points in the song, with hear brass instruments such as trumpet and saxophone used in ways that are uncommon for such instruments. These instruments are often known for their punchy, attention-grabbing interjections, but instead we find Justin Vernon using them just to assist the atmosphere building rather than directing it. Unusual choices like this leave the listener feeling as though they have been transported to the world where Bon Iver had been when they were writing the song.
But one cannot underestimate the provocative lyrics that Vernon uses throughout to creating the ambiance and atmosphere that permeates the whole song. The song at its most basic talks to us about a night out that Justin Vernon had that was unpleasant. At no stage is the listener told obviously as to what caused the night to be so unpleasant and this in itself adds to the impact of the song. The listener is now able to speculate as to what it was that made the night a bad one and this in turn allows the listener to insert any bad nights out that they may have had. For me, I project on the song a feeling that goes with a night out where you realised that you have made a mess of a romantic situation and now you find yourself in a strange town, drunk, and seemingly lost.
“You fucked it friend, it’s on its head, it struck the street
You’re in Milwaukee, off your feet”
By mixing these falsetto vocals and lyrics, with the intricate and atmospheric instrumentation means that Holocene has the affect of disorientation on the listener who becomes trapped in the memories of nights out that the song creates. The sudden conclusion to the song succeeds then in jolting the listener back to reality in an unexpected way, reminding us that our memories are just that, memories.
And at once I knew, I was not magnificent