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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bon Iver "Holocence" Song Analysis

Here's a song analysis of "Holocene" from the self-titled Bon Iver album, a band that won the Grammy for best new artist earlier in the year. "Holocene" was mentioned as one of the best songs of 2011 by a number of music magazines and was also nominated for a song of the year Grammy. The song was recorded and mixed by leader Justin Vernon at April Bay Studios, which was a remodeled veteranarians clinic in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. As with all song analysis, we'll look at the song from, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
"Holocene" is somewhat unique in that it's just a basic verse/chorus form with no bridge or other sections. It looks like this:

Intro, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus

As with virtually all hit songs, this one works because of the tension and release brought about by the arrangement of the song rather than its form. It's lyrical content is also strong, discussing personal self-worth as well as describing the Wisconsin countryside. Unlike many songs, "Holocene" has a hard ending after the chorus.

The Arrangement
This is a very thick song in that there's a lot that's going on, yet it's kept interesting because of the introduction and exit of various instruments. For instance, the song begins with two acoustic guitars panned left and right, then is joined with what sounds to be like a 12 string, and half-way into the intro it builds to a false peak with the entrance of a slide guitar (maybe it's a steel guitar - hard to tell) and vibes.

On the first chorus, the bass, hand claps, and what sounds like an electric piano enter, and the acoustic guitar on the left becomes an electric.

On the 2nd verse, a snare drum and high hat appears on the left with another snare playing a slightly different figure on the right, along with a keyboard pad and a vibes-like sounds. During the second chorus, the bass becomes more active and an additional keyboard pad enters.

The 3rd verse opens with just the lead vocal by itself (there are additional harmony parts singing the melody throughout the song otherwise), along with two different horn loops panned left and right in the background, along with the acoustic guitars attenuated so they're just barely heard. As the verse progresses the pad, snare and guitars are gradually brought up in level until they peak just before the chorus. Then on the 3rd and last chorus, what sounds like an arpeggiated string sound, the harmony vocals, and a new pad enter, building the song to a peak.

As you can hear, the dynamics of the song are constantly altered by instruments entering and exiting the song, creating interest via tension and release.

The arrangement elements of "Holocene" are very different from most other modern songs in that the traditional rhythm section of bass and drums is replaced with the acoustic guitars instead, while the rhythm (the instruments that provide motion to the song) comes from the claps and snare drums as well as the acoustic guitars.

The arrangement elements are:

  * The Foundation: Acoustic guitars, bass

  * The Rhythm: Hand claps and snare drums, acoustic guitars

  * The Pad: Keyboards

  * The Lead: Lead and harmony vocals

  * The Fills: None

The Sound
The sound of "Holocene" is pretty interesting in that there are a lot of stereo instruments and doubles, but they're not traditional at all. In most cases, instead of playing the same thing both times for a double, the second one is slightly different, giving the stereo part a moving effect. This is what happens with the acoustic guitars, the snare drums (with one played with a high hat on the left side and a naked snare on the right), and the horn loops in the third verse. The lead vocals are doubled traditionally, and panned left and right as normal.

You can't really hear the effects well, but there's a medium length reverb on most elements and what sounds like a very long delay on the horn loops in the last chorus.

The song is compressed, but it's not noticeable and breathes pretty well while subtly staying in your face.

The Production
The production on "Holocene" is beautiful by the way it creates a mood to accompany the lyrics and melody. As one of the comments on YouTube said, "It makes me happy and sad at the same time." The mix elements aren't made to be heard as instruments as much as individual elements of a mood. It's sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly what instruments you're actually hearing, but that's not important because it's more about how they make you feel.

The vocals are interesting in that there's a 3 part harmony on the melody throughout most of the song, but the harmony is way in the back of the mix so it doesn't call attention to itself. Then the way the mix elements are gradually faded into the mix on the 3rd verse almost makes it sound like a bridge while adding a peak to the song.

While the sound of the song is a little on the dark side without a lot of definition, that's all part of setting the mood. It's the perfect match for the song, which is why so many people love it.

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Sean said...

Great dissection of an amazing song. I fell in love with Bon Iver about a year ago. Not many of my friends like them. I dont get it. I think Ive replayed this song 6 times already. This is the first Ive heard of this one. Thanks for turning me on to it and thanks for the review of it. Great site!


Anonymous said...

thx for posting this
the song is sublime
and thank you for educating us on its construction


Anonymous said...

Great analysis. Bon Iver is great at production, and you've recognized that ins a beautiful way. Nice!


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