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Rotten Tomatoes Grammy Reviews: Bon Iver – Holocene (Tom Podczerwinski)


“Rotten Tomatoes” is a review writing and critiquing class being offered as a section of “Writing Commons: A Community of Writers” at the University of Iowa. For many of these authors, this is their first publication.

The Appeal of Holocene
Tom Podczerwinski

Whenever I talk to anybody I know about Bon Iver – specifically the new self-titled album – the first thing they always bring up is Holocene and how that is the song that caught their attention the most. Then they go on to talk excitedly about vocals.

BON IVER “Holocene” from nabil elderkin on Vimeo.

Sure, Justin Vernon’s voice is hard to stop focusing on – its raw, emotional, and it dominated the relatively simple soundscape presented in the first album – but the fact that the focus is so widespread shows that Bon Iver is hard to look at in a new way. Everything about it has been discussed time and time again: beautiful vocals, simple instruments, and even the context – which was not only one of the most legendary aspects of For Emma, Forever Ago, but also one of the greatest contributions to the impact of the album. Knowing that it was recorded by a guy who marooned himself in northern Wisconsin lets us take Vernon’s dejected cries to another level of understanding.

Bon Iver’s new material, however, is free of the contextual stigma that haunted its predecessor – the group has new members, it appreciates mainstream success, it has Grammy nominations, and it collaborates with the likes of Kanye West and James Blake – but it isn’t free of Justin Vernon’s voice. It wouldn’t be Bon Iver if it was, but the extra musicians that are present this time around add an entirely new dimension that may go unappreciated. Holocene has so much merit and appeal because it arrives at a perfect balance between the sorrowful crooning of Vernon and the lush instrumental contributions of his band.

This equilibrium is found mostly in the choruses, marked by Vernon uttering “…Magnificent,” but truly brought to life by a series of nostalgic xylophones, warm clarinets, and grounding bass. The quick drums that begin at the first chorus along with the near perpetual guitar part not only bring the song to a level of energy that is relatively new territory for the group, but also create a sense of inspiration in a way that almost nears cliché. That being said, any line crossing is prevented by precise vocal lines – haunting but brief – that provide a bitter balance to the song, but for the most part Vernon gladly steps aside and allows the instrumental diversity of the band to be the star for once – and it works wonders.

When it comes to the actual lyrical content, everything Vernon says is incredibly specific but at the same time metaphorical “Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright/Above my brother, I and tangled spines/ We smoked the screen to make it what it was to be/ now to know it my memory” is one of the most open ended and confusing stanzas I’ve heard recently. At some points it can be difficult to even hear what is actually being said because of the heavy stylistic overdubbing that Vernon employs. Despite this, some meaningful words and lines are still able to pierce through the fog and reach us with clarity, making interpretation possible and giving us some way to personally relate to this reflective, beautifully arranged piece.


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