Bon Iver – “Holocene” Lyrics Meaning

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Written By Brendan Briggs

Brendan is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer. In 2022, he released his first album "Dive" under the name "Arctotherium".

“Holocene” is about recognizing that our lives are significant, even though we are a small and temporary part of everything. Its lyrics encourage us to appreciate our experiences and accept that we are miniature images of the whole. It does this by beautifully describing memories that are lost to the past.

Justin Vernon wrote the song after a reflective Christmas night he shared with his brother. The mood and scenery of the night inspired Vernon to consider his own existence. He concluded that our lives do have meaning, even though we all make up something far greater than ourselves.

In this article, we’ll take a close look at these expertly chosen lyrics to reveal the hidden meaning Vernon intended. These lyrics are highly symbolic, so without further ado, let’s begin!

“Holocene” Lyrics Meaning

The song opens by describing a hard situation Vernon has found himself in. He feels as though “part of me [Vernon]” is “apart from me [Vernon],” which is causing him a lot of pain. He’s not coping with this pain well. Instead, he’s “laying waste to Halloween,” which means he’s trying to drink his troubles off his mind.

Bars and alcohol are closely tied to the meaning of this song. Vernon told NPR, “Holocene is a bar in Portland, Oregon, but it’s also the name of a geologic era.” The title of the song gives us a clue to its deeper meaning. One version of “Holocene” is a bar where people go to forget. The other version is used by geologists, who look at the earth to remember.

Vernon doesn’t specifically say what’s led to his drinking, but it’s probably a failed personal relationship that is now “on its head.” This also has practical consequences since Vernon has been kicked “off your [Vernon’s] feet” – out of the home he shared with this person.

After verse one, we get our first pre-chorus and chorus. First, Vernon admits to himself that he is “not magnificent.” This reveals what Vernon is learning from his experiences. He’s accepting that his life is small and short and that his memories are a tiny slice of all existence.

Still, this doesn’t mean they aren’t meaningful to Vernon. The chorus jumps into describing a memory “above the highway aisle.” Vernon can “see for miles,” showing him his own insignificance again. This memory is of the Christmas night that prompted Vernon to write “Holocene.”

In a conversation with Aaron Rogers for GQ, Vernon describes this Christmas night. He says, “there was nothing for miles and miles” and that “the air was hanging,” which inspired him to reflect. At one point, he had a bridge view of I-94, where “there wasn’t a single car,” explaining the reference to a highway in the chorus. 

In verse two, Vernon loses a place instead of a person. The hallway where he “learned to celebrate” has “burnt away.” This is probably a reference to a fire that destroyed an important home to Vernon in Eau Claire. It matters to Vernon because of his time there with Josh Scott, who introduced Vernon to songs like “Lip Parade,” which the verse references.

This loss leaves Vernon speechless. “Saying nothing” is enough for him, and he’s forced to accept that the home is lost forever. On that bittersweet note, we move into a repeat of the pre-chorus and chorus before getting to verse three.

The third verse is not about another loss, but it is about another memory. It’s “Christmas night,” and Vernon is with his brother. The two “smoked the screen” together and enjoyed each other’s company. This is another reference to the same Christmas night that created “Holocene.”

The verse doesn’t tell us exactly what happened on this Christmas night other than the smoking. However, it is still known “in my [Vernon’s] memory,” which means it was meaningful for Vernon. Even though this verse is not about a permanent loss, it still describes a memory that can never be relived.

After verse three, we get one final pre-chorus and chorus before the song ends. In summary, the track takes us through three memories in Vernon’s life which are gone forever. Instead of getting stuck in the past, Vernon understands that his insignificance in the grand scheme is liberating.

In his interview with NPR, Vernon summarized the song as being about the “significance in that insignificance.” It frees us to live our lives without fear and to move on when the past haunts us.

The Story Behind “Holocene”

Even though the song describes many of Justin Vernon’s experiences, “Holocene” was really born on one night in particular. Vernon’s conversation with Aaron Rogers for GQ is the best resource for understanding the creation of this beautiful track.

Vernon explained that, on one particular Christmas, he and his brother were out late in some hauntingly beautiful weather. They had just watched “Inglourious Basterds,” a Tarantino film that Vernon appreciated for its artistic completeness.

On this night, the environment’s scenery and “spooky” feeling got to Vernon. He and his brother were on a bridge over the abandoned highway. As the lyrics describe, Vernon could “see for miles” and was struck by just how small he really was.

Then, Vernon felt as if he had been “handed something to share,” and Holocene was born. The song’s chorus beautifully describes this night. According to Vernon, the verses are “really about Eau Claire and about my [Vernon’s] people from there.”

It seems like many people appreciate Vernon sharing what he was given. The track is loved by countless fans and was nominated for two Grammy awards. Rolling Stone named “Holocene” as the 22nd best single of 2011, calling it “sublime.” It’s strange to think that such a beautiful song could be born from such a simple night, but the best creations often have unusual beginnings.