The Song: Bon Iver, “Holocene”
The Crimes: Shapelessness, “atmosphere,” wondering if we’re all just particles, man, invoking existential music-listening crises.
Many of this year’s most risible songs had clear reasons for being as irritating as they were—self-impressed “punk”dom, grating whistling, Katy Perry. But there were some records that, when they hit my ear, drove me bonkers in such a way that they had me wondering about the nature of my brain chemistry, and whether it was so off the mark that I was actually a deficient listener and in need of some sort of surgery or, at least, pharmaceuticals. Bon Iver’s “Holocene,” from the Kanye-beloved outfit’s acclaimed-by-many-corners second album Bon Iver, Bon Iver, was one of those tracks that had me questioning my very existence as a listener. A nearly-six-minute bit of “atmospheric” latticework and falsetto, a spin of it would inevitably lead to me tapping my feet, and not in an “along with the rhythm” sort of way. (Because there really isn’t much of any to speak of.)
Certainly “Holocene” is antithetical to the booming, blustery tracks that dominated pop radio this year; where the likes of Pitbull’s Ne-Yo-assisted “Give Me Everything” and Rihanna’s “We Found Love” combined relentless keyboard lines with singing that, for better or worse, boasted its bona fides both via timbre and lyrical content, “Holocene” is delicate, unsure of itself in relation to the world, sung in a falsetto that could slide into the Vienna Boys Choir at a moment’s notice. As Bon Iver’s chief creative force Justin Vernon put it to NPR:
Holocene is a bar in Portland, Ore., but it’s also the name of a geologic era, an epoch if you will. It’s a good example of how all the songs are all meant to come together as this idea that places are times and people are places and times are… people? [Laughs.] They can all be different and the same at the same time. Most of our lives feel like these epochs. That’s kind of what that song’s about. “Once I knew I was not magnificent.” Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind. But I think there’s a significance in that insignificance that I was trying to look at in that song.
Perhaps “Holocene” is trying to replicate that “dust in the wind” feeling by actually sounding like particles blowing up and forming a haze that one can’t see through. Which, hey, if that’s what Vernon is aiming for, good job! But “Holocene”‘s meticulously crafted shapelessness and circularity—which does crescendo into a pile of tremolo’d strings and slightly more passionate warbling about a minute out, should first-time listeners want to skip ahead to that point—lands on my ear in such a way that it makes me feel almost instantly impatient; reading the lyrics closely makes me wonder what sort of later actions the deep-dude-in-the-dorm realizations outlined above, which are somewhat obfuscated by the use of his formelessness-inducing falsetto until one busts out the lyric sheet, might result in. (“Sorry, baby, we’re all just particles”?) On its own “Holocene” would be just a skippable track on a record that I played a couple of times, but the laurels sent its way—never mind the expected huzzahs from the indie-rock press; the Grammys elevated this loose pile of gauze over the sparkling, hooky “Super Bass” for Record and Song of the Year?—elevate it enough to make me long for an alternate universe in which Vernon made songs using what he refers to later in the aforementioned NPR interview as his “Hootie voice.” At the very least, it would have given his music a little bit of added oomph.
The 11 Most Infuriating Songs Of 2011
11. Kreayshawn, “Gucci Gucci”
10. will.i.am feat. Mick Jagger and Jennifer Lopez, “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever)”
9. Katy Perry feat. Missy Elliott, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) (Remix)”
8. Tyler, The Creator, “Bitch Suck Dick”
7. Maroon 5 feat. Christina Aguilera, “Moves Like Jagger”
6. Bon Iver, “Holocene”
5. Rihanna, “S&M”
4. Brian McFadden, “Just The Way You Are (Drunk At The Bar)”
3. [White Person], [White Person Cutely/”Seriously” Performing Urban-Radio Hit]
2. Lana Del Rey, “Video Games”
1. Jessie J, “Price Tag”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 27, 2011