Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hole Hearted: No Ordinary Love Song

(Author’s note: Posts like this one are the reason I gave my blog the title “VBR Productions.”  It allows me to write about more than just sports.  Had I called it something more specific like "A Sports Fan’s Blog,” I wouldn’t be able to share the below thoughts.)

Everyone has a favorite band and/or song.  Over time, and as with all things, these bands and songs may change as people’s tastes change.  There may be better bands and songs that come along, while individuals go through different phases in life.  I went through a jazz phase where I only wanted to hear Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and Count Basie.  It’s a natural progression.

This blogger’s favorite band has always been Extreme.  In a future post I’ll go into the how’s and the why’s; for now the reader need only know that they’ve been my favorite band forever, no matter the point in time.

In 1990 the band released “Extreme II: Pornograffitti,” a rock album that reached double platinum status and peaked at #10 on the Billboard 200 chart.  Although the majority of the album centers on Nuno Bettencourt’s other-worldly guitar playing, the band became known for “More Than Words.”  The slow ballad was unique at the time, as it incorporated only two vocalists and an acoustic guitar. 

But “More Than Words” is not the lone acoustic-only track on “Porno.”  While “MTW” gained the band fame and fortune, it was “Hole Hearted” that proved to be the superior song.  In fact it remains my favorite song more than two decades later.

The purpose of this blog post is to break down reasons “Hole Hearted” is among the greatest love song of modern rock and roll.  First, give the original studio version a listen before continue reading.  No analysis would be worthwhile if the song isn’t fresh in your mind, and if the song just doesn’t get you to tap your feet, then me writing about it isn’t going to change that.  (I'll also provide other versions of the song throughout the post, if for no other reason than to break up the prose.)

So where do we begin deciphering the consolidation of awesomeness that we just experienced?  Let’s start with the dynamics of the lyrics and music, and then examine a few subtle aspects of the song.

Lyrics and Music
(Preface - I grew up playing the guitar and this song is the reason I kept playing when I was about to give it up.  The below discussion incorporates chord progressions and notes, but hopefully you can still get through it if you can't read music.)

The song opens with roughly 30 seconds of instrumentals that build the foundation of the entire song.  Nuno begins with a series of “D,” “E” and “F” chords that lead into a sequence of him strumming single-and-dual notes centered on the “A” and “D” chords.  The first words sung are not awe-inspiring: Gary supplies variations of “ooh, yeah,” “woo!” and more “yeah’s” as the music commences. 

The first chorus sets the scene from the first-person perspective: there’s something missing in his life.

"Life’s ambition: occupy my time //
Priorities confuse the mind //
Happiness: one step behind //
This inner peace I’ve yet to find"

The words themselves are melancholy but are set to a positive-sounding musical riff.  This dichotomy establishes a sense of longing coupled with hope.  Specifically, the last word of the verse (“find”) is sung to the strike of the “D” chord, which is an upbeat progression from the “A” chord dominating most of the verse.  The word “find” itself carries the connotation of potential discovery, which is an exhilarating event.

Following this establishment of hope, a bridge follows to connect the verse to the chorus.  The up-and-down flow of the music matches the mood of the words:

"Rivers flow into the sea //
Yet even the sea is not so full of me //
If I’m not blind, why can’t I see //
That a circle can’t fit in where a square should be?"

The first line is played on the upswing – “Rivers” is sung to the “D” chord, while a higher-octave “G” is struck with the next word (“flow”).  Following a lower-octave “G” and “A” chords, the second line follows a sequence of “A7” to “D7” to “C7” back down to “A7.”  It’s no accident that this less-upbeat sequence of chords matches lyrics emphasizing the singer’s recognition of emptiness (“the sea is not so full of me”). 

The third line again starts on a good note (“D” chord) followed by a “G” of a higher octave.  However, even this higher-octave chord is a “G7” rather than the full “G.”  This lack of a full “G” is consistent with the tone of the lyrics, which simulate of a lack of comprehension of his loneliness. 

Just as the third line is musically similar but not an exact replica of the first, the fourth line imperfectly mirrors the second.  The lyrics match the sadness of the second line but the chords form a more melancholy-filled “C7” – “A7” – “D” – “A7” sequence.  This chord progression allows the bridge to end with sadness both lyrically (things can’t fit where they don’t belong) and musically (chord progressions inspiring sadness).

So the first verse ends with hope, while the bridge ends on more of a downer note.  The lyrics are ambiguous enough for the audience to apply them to any situation (not necessarily love). Meanwhile the nature of the music (fast-paced acoustic guitar, accompanying bass guitar, and a single drum beat) is simply a fun, toe-tapping ditty.  Nothing about the first 74 seconds of the song points specifically to a love song.

And then, BOOM!  Well, it’s more of a subdued “boom” that occurs; there are a couple louder “booms” that occur later.  The “A7” that concludes the bridge gives way to a simple “G” chord followed by a quick “A” – “B” – “C” chord progression.  These chords match the following lyrics:

“There’s a hole in my heart that can only be filled by you.”

That Cherone sings the first ten words of the chorus by himself is consistent with the sad tone of the end of the bridge.  Nuno jumping in to sing with him on the two words “by you” represents the first indication that this is a love song.  These words are followed by the “D” – to – “E” chord progression that opened the song, but are decidedly more active than the ambiguity of the intro.

In a less-subdued manner, the rest of the band joins Gary and Nuno in singing the second (of two) lines of the chorus:

“And this hole my heart can’t be filled with the things I do…” 

What an explosion of vocal ability!  Each band member hits his note perfectly.  This is the part of the song where if you aren’t hitched yet, the rest of the song probably won’t do it for you.

And yet the chorus is not yet complete.  Following this positive convergence of guitars and vocals, Gary is left alone (emphasizing first-person loneliness) to sing the two words, “hole hearted.”  The guy has a hole in his heart for a woman, acknowledges the situation, but also knows he can’t do anything about it without her help.

Before moving to the interlude/guitar solo, it is time to mention the play on words of “hole hearted.”  To state the obvious, it’s a play on the words “whole-hearted,” which describes someone’s inclination to give an undertaking everything he’s got.  Conversely, the singer is operating “hole-hearted,” whereby a lack of something prevents him from being whole.

If that’s not a clever turn of a phrase, I don’t know what is.

After Gary repeats “hole hearted” a second time, the song leads to Nuno’s guitar solo.  With the main guitar riff from the first verse in the background, Nuno introduces a “slide” tool into the song.  This provides a smoother “twang” sound to guitar strings than does the pressure of human fingers.  There’s no need for deep analysis of this – it’s an upbeat, fun addition to the song.  The live version below makes excessive use of a slide guitar...and it still works.

With the slide guitar continuing into the second verse to complement the lyrics, the song gets back to being as fun as it was at the start of the bridge.  Let’s shift the focus back to the lyrics of the second verse:

“This heart of stone is where I hide //
These feet of clay kept warm inside //
Day by day, less satisfied //
Not fade away before I die"

In contrast to the first verse, in which the musical tone matched the lyrical tone, the use of the slide in the second verse presents the opposite tone of the lyrics.  The harsh words (including “heart of stone,” “less satisfied” and “die”) are surprisingly offset by the “zip” of the slide guitar.  Gary practically crying the words of the third line, to the tone of an imploringly-high note, is even negated by the immediate response of Nuno’s guitar. 

On the whole, musically and vocally, this song has established a fun, upbeat momentum to this point.  There’s been impassioned singing, glorious harmonization of vocals, both simple chords and complicated guitar riffs, and the use of a guitar slide.  All this leads back to the bridge, which lyrically is exactly the same but musically incorporates the aforementioned momentum.

The first line is sung similarly to the first bridge, but Nuno sings the second line with notably more fervor than the first time.  He even completes the line by ending the final word (“me”) by singing a couple notes up the scale.  We’re building to something here!

Nuno then joins Gary on the third line by singing a harmonizing descant (more momentum!).  The fourth line is again sung by Nuno with drastically more fervor than he sang it in the first bridge.  Gary even joins him to end the line with a spirited “should be!”  All during this bridge, the slide guitar abounds and dances about, matching and offsetting the lyrics throughout.  Such things cannot be appropriately articulated – the combination of vocals and slide guitar simply creates amazing music.

The song begins its final movements when Gary sings, “there’s a…” and is majestically joined by the others with “hole in my heart that can only be filled by you!”  Pat shows off his vocal prowess by singing the high “A,” “B” and “C” notes to match “that can on-,” then maintains the high “C” at “-ly be filled.”  This is followed by another vocal burst of “and this hole in my heart can’t be filled with the things I do.”

Rather than finish the line with “hole hearted,” the first line of the chorus repeats itself.  The final line becomes “I should have known from the start I’d fall short with the things I do hole hearted.”  Gary and Nuno alternate singing the words “hole hearted” a couple times before Gary begins the final sequence.  The band ends the song on an upbeat “D” chord with more harmonizing of the word “hearted.”  A few seconds later Gary concludes with a mild, almost inaudible, “yee-haw” that accentuates the musical explosion that just ended.

So what did we all just witness?  The song repeats a set of four specific movements: instrumental foundation, verse, bridge, and chorus.  Within the first and second sequences, the song establishes an understated tone of loss coupled with the chance of hope.  The third sequence uses upbeat music to compensate for the down mood of the vocals.

The song culminates in a chorus where the tone of the music has shifted somewhat melancholy lyrics into a celebration.  The singer needs the object of his affection, and we’re made to feel how amazing that person is through the synchronization of music and vocals.

Subtle Measures

Three other aspects that are less pronounced require discussion: lack of electronic instruments, the song’s drum beat and the song’s role in “Pornograffitti.”

Acoustic-Only Instruments
Musicians can neutralize deficiencies in talent through the use of electric guitars, synthesizers, and other electronic measures.  Just throw enough distortion into your amplifier and you can make garbage sound a little less like garbage. 

What continues to strike me about “Hole Hearted” is that there are no electronics involved.  There is a full sound to the song, and it’s almost jarring to think that it is comprised of bare-bones acoustic guitars, two drums (see below) and vocals.  There is no lack of sound whatsoever to this song.  To get that rich of a song musically without the aid of electrical instruments underscores the talent of the band.

Below is an early-90's version of the song using electric guitars...and a four-piece horn section!  (The first two minutes are are a slow interlude, but the payoff is worth it.)

Drum Beat
One musical element subliminally enhances the “love song” aspect of “Hole Hearted.”  After Nuno strums his guitar the first couple seconds of the song, we are introduced to the beat of the bass drum.  This beat occurs at a rate of almost two beats per second and continues until the last note of the song.  There’s a cymbal Paul uses throughout the song as well, but it used sparingly.

The key to this drum beat is that it is continuous throughout the song, no matter the movement.  The musical interludes, verses, bridges and choruses all maintain the same, unending beat.

You know what else is associated with a regular beat?  You got it – a heart!  While heart rates can fluctuate (due to exercise, or even the from the flutter of love), generally they beat at a constant rate.  (In fact, you don’t want your physician to classify your heart beat as “irregular.”  It’s considered bad in the medical community.)  A song (about a hole in one’s heart) itself has a beat that does not deviate from its course throughout the song.

It’s rather poetic…kind of like a love poem.  The next live version by Gary's side project, Hurtsmile, emphasizes a stronger demonstration of percussives.

A Funked Up Fairy Tale…

Two decades ago, bands put significantly more emphasis on completing entire albums of quality songs.  Nowadays it seems like bands and artists focus on getting one hit single out to the market and cash in on their popularity.  (That’s not an indictment of today’s music, just an observation.)

“Hole Hearted” is the 13th and final song on their second album, “Pornograffitti.”  It was a fairly ambitious funk-based rock album that explored the objectification of people for sex (a song called “Pornograffitti”), greed (“Money [In God We Trust]”), and chauvinism (“He-Man Woman Hater”).  “Hole Hearted” is not the only love song, as “Porno” also includes “When I First Kissed You” and “Song for Love.”  However, even the album’s most popular love song (“More Than Words”) can be broken down by saying, “if you truly loved me then you’d sleep with me.” 

The vast array of music meanders on the topics of sex, exploitation, etc., throughout the album.  There’s not a linear progression of topics – they just meld together in no particular order.  So concluding this album on such a powerful, clever love song allows the listener to question what he/she just heard.  Cognitive dissonance sets in – the entire album was all over the map about sexuality, and yet it ends on a note of such genuine affection?

By listening to the song as a single, the listener can get everything out of “Hole Hearted” as was discussed above…except for the jarring effect of how it concludes “Porno.”  But listening to the album from cover to cover generates that much more depth and meaning for the listener.

Here's a sample of "Porno's" essence.

In conclusion, “Hole Hearted” is about as unique a love song as you’ll hear.  On the surface, it’s just a good song sung by a talented band of musicians.  Under the surface, its complicated lyrical and musical ebbs and flows add depth to the actual words and chords.  As part of the overall picture, it rather dramatically concludes an album that emphasizes sexual exploitation.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go listen to the song a few thousand more times.


  1. Lyrics are all about what the reader interprets from it, even though the writer might have a different meaning behind it. From what I've been told it's a song about the love (or whatever you wanna call it) to God. In my interpretation it's, like you've interpreted it, a love song.

    (And according to Gary in an interview, More Than Words was made from something a girlfriend of his "told" (asked of?) him, that you can show someone that you love them in other ways than saying I love you. And from that, I don't necessarily think that "if you truly loved me you'd sleep with me" was the meaning behind, but of course it can be interpreted as that if you see it from a "juvenile" point of view, and considering the album title and certain other Extreme lyrics...) But that's of course just my point of view.

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  3. Interesting read! I'm with Lailuka on this one. I believe Hole Hearted is a song about God. He saying that God is the only one who can fill that hole in his heart. Listening to other Extreme lyrics like "Watching, Waiting", the "truth" on III Sides, and on Hurtsmile's "Beyond The Garden" tells you that Gary has a pretty strong faith.

    As for More Than Words.... Definitely not a song about sex. Having been in more than one failed relationship I have felt like the other person can prove that they love someone without saying something. Actions do speak louder than words but when someone has sex with you it doesn't always mean that they love you. In fact, I think sometimes people often use it as a way to try to make someone love them even though they don't. :-)

    I did enjoy the read and I do love both songs. Well, Extreme is and always has been my favorite band, too! I love it when people tell the world about them!

  4. Btw, forgot to say that I too enjoyed the read! :) And that I'm quite fascinated by the analysis and breakdown of the music. Cool post!

  5. Interesting read!! I like it really.I would like to say one think that Thank you so much for sharing with us.

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