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Advent Day 23: 715 - CR∑∑KS

I remember something That leaving wasn't easing All that heaving in my vines. And as certain it is evening 'at is now is not the time …And oh, I know it felt right and I had you in my grasp Oh, then how we gonna cry Cause it once might not mean something Love, a second glance it is not something that we'll need Honey, understand that I have been left here in the reeds But all I'm trying to do is get my feet out from the crease

And I'll see you

Turn around, you're my A-Team Turn around now, you're my A-Team God damn, turn around now, you're my A-Team


715 - CR∑∑KS, Bon Iver


 

It would seem a shame to spend 24 days writing about lyrics without making at least some attempt at interpreting the wonderfully cryptic poetry of Bon Iver. The lyrics on his latest album ‘22, A Million’ are as pleasingly bewildering as his previous albums, but with the added perplexity of numerological titles and lyric videos filled with icons and symbols. Justin Vernon, (the man behind ‘Bon Iver’) describes his approach this way: “Sound things out and find out what it means later”. Whilst his words may be an artistic exploration rather than a narrative with any clear anchor of meaning, they are by no means empty of feeling, sense or substance.


Listening to 715 Creeks, you get the impression that this may be a break-up song. If the listener is bold enough to ascribe some sort of narrative to his enigmatic lyrics, then you might be able to piece together enough fragments to create a vague storyline about a lover who has left him heartbroken:


I remember something That leaving wasn't easing All that heaving in my vines


Vernon subverts language, so that just when you think might be getting a hold of some kind of meaning, you find yourself in another tangle of knotty words. Here it seems that he is talking about the heartache experienced within a relationship, and how his pain has only increased upon her leaving. ‘Heaving’ suggests anxious breathing or pained sobbing, but he then surprises us with the strange turn of phrase ‘in my vines’. ‘Heaving in my chest’ would be more understandable; or even ‘in my veins’, but this incongruous choice of word returns us to the nature imagery of the title. Then later in the song when we expect Vernon to continue you with the 'creek' theme, he confuses us again by altering the word, to ‘crease’.


Honey, understand that I have been left here in the reeds

But all I'm trying to do is get my feet out from the crease


Vernon’s poetic use of language turns metaphor on its head; the words feel almost slippery as though the singer is losing his grip on reality. There is a sense that he is thrashing about in the dark, trying to find words for feelings that are inexpressible, except perhaps through music. The vocoder in this song is a particularly powerful way of conveying the depths of his emotion; the glitches in sound adding to the desperation of his words towards the climax of the song.


‘I have been left here in the reeds’ sounds like the cry of a man who has been abandoned, a feeling that is further hinted at in the next track, '33 God', in which the music video flashes up the words of Psalm 22, ‘Why are you so far from saving me?’ There is plenty of room for a spiritual interpretation of his lyrics, especially when paired with the strange, almost religious iconography in his music videos. Lines like ‘Cause it once might not mean something’ have echoes of Ecclesiastes, and the reference to being left in the reeds brings to mind the story of Moses, who is left by his mother in a basket amongst the reeds of the River Nile.


And yet in the biblical story, being left in the reeds is not a sign of rejection or neglect, but rather a mother’s desperate attempt to save her child from being thrown into the Nile after Pharaoh orders the death of every male Hebrew baby. The symbolism in the music video also looks suspiciously like a Mosaic allusion. In one of the biblical stories, God commands him to hold up a pole with a snake on it, so that everyone who looks on it will be healed from their deadly snakebites. And if you look closely at the icon in Vernon’s video, it’s a picture of a snake on a pitchfork overlapping the numbers of the title, 715.


‘33 - God’ is the song that follows, and some critics have suggested 33 is a reference to the age of Jesus at his death. This particularly interests me because Moses’ life has so many parallels to the life of Jesus. He is laid in the reeds, foreshadowing the birth of Jesus, who is laid in the straw and born at a similarly dangerous time when King Herod has sent his soldiers to kill all baby boys. Jesus, like Moses, grows up to redeem the people of God; hence the story of the snake, which points us towards Jesus' death. He is held up high on the cross, so that those who look upon him can find healing from the bite of Satan, the serpent.


Whether or not this comparative imagery is intended within Bon Iver’s album, I get the sense that Vernon is more likely expressing an atheist or agnostic sentiment through his music, rather than any kind of Christian message. And yet I also can’t help feeling that the devastating heartache expressed in this song, and throughout his albums, seems like a cry to a god that may or may not be out there.


Art, whether it’s musical, literary or visual, can be so many things, but I think it may ultimately be an articulation of our need and desire for God, as Josh Larsen puts it, “elemental expressions of the human experience, message bottles sent in search of Someone who will respond.” (Movies are Prayers)


We find in the final lines of '715 - CR∑∑KS' a desperate call for the singer's subject to respond to his loneliness and pain.


'God damn, turn around now, you're my A-Team'


Although he curses here (in God’s name), he does not seem to be addressing God, but rather his unresponsive lover. If these words were to be directed at God, the response would be very different. The singer would receive so much more than just the 'second glance' that he is denied.


The story of Christmas and the entire biblical narrative tell us that God is never aloof. He always turns around when we call him, and he is always there ready to be grasped by those who seek him. He never leaves us with our feet stuck in ‘the crease’ or ‘creek’ however far we may sometimes feel from him.

I want to the end this post with the words of another symbolic song; one that is far less cryptic than Bon Iver’s! The allegorical carol, Good King Wenceslas, speaks of Jesus, the one who never leaves us behind but leads the way ahead through the darkest of times:


Page and monarch forth they went,

Forth they went together;

Through the rudewind’s wild lament,

And the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now,

And the wind blows stronger;

Fails my heart, I know not how,

I can go no longer.”

“Mark my footsteps, good my page;

Tread thou in them boldly;

Thou shalt find the winter’s rage

Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod,

Where the snow lay dinted;

Heat was in the very sod

Which the Saint had printed.

 

This is part of my LittlePonderings series: "Unseasonal Songs: An Alternative Advent in Song Lyrics". You can find out more here.

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