There are very few times that the name of an album is truly indicative of the music inside. This is the unique case of Big Red Machine, a collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner. The debut LP of their new group is a product of PEOPLE — a collective of artists who have been making music together for years.
The name of Vernon and Dessner’s band and of their first album is uncannily accurate. With so many people collaborating on this piece, crafting the tracks thoughtfully, there is a factory feel to it. Each electronic blip and screech sounds as if it is, in fact, coming out of a big red machine.
On the opening track “Deep Green,” Vernon’s voice — known on Bon Iver albums for its sensitive cracking and aching vibrato — is a cradling drawl. Ringing over the twitching electronic beat, the vocals are effortless, fluctuating laxly. Vernon’s subtle hymns are honeyed and beautiful in their own right, but Dessner’s synthetic snare and spurting electric guitar are what make “Deep Green” a song. If Vernon is the tree, arched divine and fruitful over the sidewalk, Dessner’s instrumentals are the wind passing through its leaves, shaking them to the ground and bringing them within our grasp.
While “Deep Green” features a sultry, jazzy, electric rhythm with haunting, elaborate lyrics, the following track “Gratitude” is concise and accessible. Repeating the line, “Well I better not fuck this up” over a guitar melody that sounds like an electrified version of The National’s “Start a War,” the song is oddly familiar. The lyrics are not those of a song as much as they are the soundings off of someone’s inner thoughts.
This is a quality consistent throughout Big Red Machine. The LP maintains twinges of Vernon’s and Dessner’s separate styles, but, for the most part, is something entirely unheard of. Each track plays like a freestyle — bass, guitar, drums and Vernon’s vocals all mixing together as if they were meeting for the first time.
“Air Stryp” is the perfect example of this. With the metallic taste of Vernon’s voice spilling over a frantic EDM bassline, the bass of the song drops unexpectedly. Vernon repetitively and robotically sings, “Drive by vroom” as if it is some sort of chorus. The song flows like a stream of consciousness, convoluted and a bit distracting. And though it is still a fun rhythm to listen to, in the grander scheme of the album, it is the weakest song.
But this is one tiny hiccup on a relatively flawless album. The song “Hymnostic” starts off with a daunting synth vibration but almost immediately changes form into an enchanting gospel song. The lyrics paint an image of holiness, of new beginnings and desperate love. The many voices singing together on the track honor the album’s intention of shining a light on a community of collaborating artists.
“People Lullaby” is a soft and hypnotic lull. It’s a refreshing break from Dessner’s chaotic collection of bleeps and scratches. The beat is reminiscent of many lullabies before it, but as the song goes on, it shifts into a trill of deliciously delicate guitar and drums. All of the hands responsible for Big Red Machine work together in this song to tuck you into bed. Though the lyrics speak of uncertainties and balancing on the border line of opposing emotions, it’s a reality that you are left completely satisfied to live in.
Dessner and Vernon have created an album that listeners have an ingrained connection with. It’s cathartic. Listening to the tracks feels like getting a second chance to say all the things you’ve ever left unsaid. It’s a familiar face that we can’t place, a spice we’ve tasted before but don’t know where. Maybe it’s our biological desire to be part of a community that brings along this feeling. Maybe the songs breathe relatability in a fresh way.
Or maybe we connect with these tracks because Dessner and Vernon are just that good at what they do.
Maisy Menzies is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].