Instead of my regular bait-and-switch of song titles and article titles, this article is actually about the titular song.
“715 — CRΣΣKS” is one of the most recognizable songs from one of my all-time favorite albums: 22, A Million, by Bon Iver.
Bon Iver’s frontman, Justin Vernon, makes music that sometimes sounds… scrambled. His style is not created by just applying distortion and layering samples; his lyrics often feel nonsensical and intentionally lacking explain-ability.
A lot can be said about the reason for the rhymes, especially the depth behind Vernon’s choice of samples, but I’ll leave that to experts like Elizabeth Navarra Varnado.
I’ve listened to all of Bon Iver’s albums tens of times each and, for certain songs, still can’t discern whether Vernon is storytelling, nesting symbolism, or just using words that sound powerful. Unlike with other lyrical music, I don’t feel compelled to consider the meaning behind the lyrics — they just feel good.
Why do they feel good? I believe it has to do with Bon Iver’s pioneering use of the Messina, a live synthesizer instrument named after the band’s sound engineer, Chris Messina. The Messina is a vocoder with a Prismizer vocal effect that melds pitch and frequency to create a polyphonic choral sound.
If that was too much music jargon, just know it makes one singer sound like a supernatural chorus. Bon Iver’s use of the effect renders lyrics barely intelligible yet viscerally feel-able. You might recognize a Prismizer’s sound from artists Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, and Violet Days.
What happens to Vernon’s lyrics when they’re not performed with a Prismizer?
This is a cover by The Nor’easters, an a capella chorus. They perform “715 — CRΣΣKS” with conventional, unsynthesized, vocal harmonies and it’s beautiful.
They put their spin on a Prismizer’s choral harmonics and produced a lovely demonstration of the human voice. This is exactly what a capella choruses excel at: many voices synchronizing to create a single, complex sound. You could interpret their rendition as a reverse-engineered Prismizer.
But The Nor’easters’ cover lacks the Prismizer’s unique vibrations and distorted textures and as a result, Vernon’s lyrics suddenly crystalize. Each phrase now feels exposed, awkward, and noticeably nonsensical; like souring wine, but not quite Vogon poetry (because I could still siphon out a contrived narrative).
Ultimately, eyebrow-raising phrasing and word choice suddenly pull me out of the song and into writing about the magic of a Prismizer.
What is it about the balance Bon Iver finds with the Messina that allows them to condense emotionality into otherwise awkward lyrics? Give the songs a listen and let me know!