Hold Back The River

My second blog post assignment this semester was to analyze a contemporary song and how it uses different aspects of theory to emphasize it’s meaning and even affect the impact it can have on the listener. The song I chose was “Hold Back The River” by James Bay. I love everything about this song. This song is about taking our attention away from all the chaos and stress that we face every day and just taking time to really focus on the people we love and care about, and spend time with them.

This song starts out with a vi chord in the verses, but with a recurring exchange between the minor vi and the major IV in the verses, it almost sounds as if it’s being pulled towards a major tonal center. The major IV chord is very prominent in this song. In fact, the chorus even starts with a IV chord. Though there are several different variations of chord progressions for the chorus, in each possible option the IV chord resolves to tonic, determining a real key. A minor ii chord is even thrown into the bridge to really deceive the listeners.

I think my favorite theoretical aspect used in this song is the use of various registers and timbres in the artist’s voice. Both verses, the first chorus, and the first bridge are in a lower octave, presenting a relatively calm mood. The instrumentation for the first verse is very simple, just a little guitar and very light percussion. His voice isn’t necessarily quiet, but you can definitely tell he is holding back (no pun intended). The instrumentation gets a little louder in the second verse and he starts to use a little more air in his vocals, producing a stronger sound. The second chorus is the same melody as the first, only it’s an octave higher. The instrumentation continues to pick up a little more, and he uses the same vocal strength he used in the first verse, but he throws in a falsetto-sounding timbre, providing a vocal quality that almost sounds sort of vulnerable. After this chorus, he goes into the first section of the bridge and he drops down the octave again, using the same calming timbre as the first verse and almost all instrumentation is gone. He then repeats the bridge again but an octave higher, and though this part is in the same range as the second chorus, instead of using his falsetto he goes into full chest voice and sings very strong. After the repeated bridge is the third chorus, still in the same register as the second chorus, but with the same full sound as the second bridge to where he doesn’t sound vulnerable anymore, but as if he’s begging whoever he’s speaking to to forget about everything else going on and enjoy their time together. “Hold back the river, let me look in your eyes; hold back the river so I can stop for a minute and be by your side, hold back the river, hold back.”

This is without a doubt my favorite song. I play this at every gig I do and though I don’t do this song justice, it really gets the crowd going because of it’s powerful message and arrangement.


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