With Big Red Machine, there is no question that Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner have mastered their craft. Although not household names, Vernon (the man behind Bon Iver) and Dessner, an accredited producer and instrumentalist (who worked on Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore) boast immense praise for their work in the music industry. And while they live quieter lifestyles compared to their counterparts, Dessner and Vernon’s collaborative project may have plunged the two into a greater spotlight with the release of their second album, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?
The group’s sophomore effort is similar to their 2018 self-titled debut, yet refines their experimental sound into one that feels even more entirely their own. Its sound and overall allure are something untouched by the group’s folk and indie-rock peers. It proves both Vernon and Dessner’s ability to create something that may sound peculiar at first listen, but is a mastery in its own right.
The album begins with “Latter Days,” a slow ballad featuring singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, whose voice melts into Vernon’s. The lyrics whimsically call upon childhood nostalgia, as they sing, “You in your childhood bed / And the wildest dream you ever had.” Dessner joins in the second verse, and the trio’s melodies coexist together in perfect harmony. Folk music is often glossed over as sad and overindulgent, in which its themes (especially in sad tunes) can feel misread as whiny and pitiful. “Latter Days,” however, sets the album up to be vulnerable and comforting, with a sincere, wholesome approach.
“Renegade,” is one of the album’s most immediate cuts, due in part to a feature from Taylor Swift. The track sounds like something off of Swift’s Evermore, — although a straightforward pop song, it’s woodsy and a little mysterious. The melody is upbeat, catchy and sounds like it would be played on local radio. Swift sings over a consistent beat, talking about a failed relationship with someone closed off and broken. Lyrics such as, “Are you really going to talk about timing in times like these? / And let all your damage, damage me,” show Swift doing what she does best: channeling heartbreak of past relationships into a self-reflective tune.
Tracks such as “Reese” and “Magnolia” allow for Vernon and Dessner’s power as multitalented artists to shine through. Without features, both vocalists rise to the occasion, especially Dressner, who lets his usually softer vocals come across with more distinction. On both tracks the two tell a story, usually alluding to a feminine role, that has come to a crossroads in their relationship. While these could potentially come off as patronizing, each track feels nurtured and taken care of. “Brycie” is Dessner’s ode to his brother Bryce, who stood by the musician during his battle with mental health and depression. These tracks are full of emotional reassurance and support, fitting as the album is Vernon’s and Dessner’s meticulous experiment, full of a uniqueness that must have required lots of TLC.
While being labeled as an indie-folk album, the album doesn’t exactly sonically fit into just one box. Tracks such as “The Ghost of Cincinnati” provides a folk-like feel with acoustic guitar backing and soft ghost-like vocals, and sits alongside ones like “Easy to Sabotage,” which has a more energetic feel with staticky Bon Iver-style electronics. The tracks don’t always fit together cohesively to meet one sound, and because of this, the album can occasionally feel chopped together. But Vernon and Dessner use Big Red Machine as an experimental outlet to bring the unexpected together; in doing so, the listener is greeted with 15 diverse tracks, all individual experiments of a greater design. The album’s focus on its creative process rather than a pursuit of algorithmic success is extremely refreshing.
In its totality, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is diverse, a little mishmashed, but is exactly what it purports to be. Vernon and Dessner’s experimental project as Big Red Machine makes out to be a beautifully crafted album, rooted in sincere artistic expression not often found in today’s industry.