The Collaboration and Vulnerability of Big Red Machine's New Album
When the world is upside and the future is uncertain, I lose myself in listening to music. Over the summer, I moved 500 miles away to start a new job in a new city in a new state — in the midst of a global pandemic that seems like it’ll never end and the climate crisis never not far from my mind. Fortunately for me, 2021 is shaping up to be a great year for music. I’m listening to more music than I have in years and especially listening to more new music, so I have plenty of albums to lose myself in. The one album I’d been anxiously awaiting is How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, the sophomore release from Big Red Machine. After spending time with it over the last two weeks, it seems to distill the feeling of this moment in a way I’ve never heard before.
Big Red Machine, who released their first album in 2018, is a collaboration between Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. I am a fan of their work independently so I was primed to like the album (and did!) but I read it mostly as a side project for the two: basically a Bon Iver album produced by Dessner. On How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, however, the project feels more than a vanity project, doubling down on what they are best, getting more expansive and more personal at the same time.
On this new album, Vernon steps back from the lead vocals to make space for a host of guests including Taylor Swift, Fleet Foxes, Anais Mitchell, Ben Howard, and even Dessner himself, singing lead for the first time. The album — and Big Machine as a project — is built around the idea of collaboration and Dessner calls on his friends to make this album truly feel like a collective. The diversity in styles here deepen the songwriting while showing Dessner’s production chops as he moves from the spare piano-driven tracks to the Arthur Russell-esque “Hoping Then”, the folklore-like “Renegade” to the lush “Hutch”. This range of voices, styles, and approaches should make the album feel disjointed yet it’s all held together — musically through Dessner’s production but also lyrically. There’s an arc to the album — it both opens and closes with Anais Mitchell driven tracks and returns again and again to questions of nostalgia, childhood, memories, and the fleeting nature of time.
I don’t think of either Dessner or Vernon as especially personal lyricists. Matt Berninger, the lead vocalist and lyricist for The National often works on abstract songs, the lyrics fragmented and obscure rather than direct. Vernon, whose Bon Iver debuted with a folksy, confessional album, has, with each new album moved towards a fascinating indecipherably, creating the impression of confession while composing songs that are literally unpronounceable. “The ready-made idioms of folk and rock that inspired his first couple of albums are no longer sufficient,” Hua Hsu wrote in The New Yorker after Bon Iver’s 2016 album 22, A Million. “Instead, 22 is filled with a sense of adventure and mischief that his older works seemed too serious to indulge. It’s an attempt at a new language, as evidenced by the album’s unusual song titles and hip-hop-inspired approach to production.”
Yet, in How Long…, the lyrics feel much more direct, more personal: the centerpiece, Hutch, a tribute to the late Scott Hutchinson of Frightened Rabbit, rises to gospel-choir like chorus that nearly brought me to tears1. In Brycie, a song Dessner wrote for his twin brother, Bryce, he sings, You watched my back when we were young / You stick around when we’re old / I’m sleeping sound when you’re in the room / You help me stay above the ground, carrying a vulnerability I haven’t heard in either of their prior work. The clever lyricism both Dessner and Vernon are known for is still very much present, but they’re mixed with a narrativity that carries a newfound depth I keep coming back to.
Quarantine has proven incredibly productive for Dessner who’s profile rose when he produced Taylor Swift’s two quarantine projects, folklore and evermore as well as the new Ben Howard album and now How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? feels in keeping with the themes he and Swift explored on her albums pushing Dessner’s work farther than he has before. The album’s core is a melancholy we’ve come to expect from Dessner and Vernon (and Taylor’s latest move), but the album moves from joy to sorrow, love to regret, capturing a range of emotions that feel especially attuned to the world today.
In the album closer, New Auburn, vocalist Anais Mitchell asks Who are you to listen? / who are you to care?, as if breaking the fourth wall, asking the listeners, why we’re still here, listening in on this confession. We’re here — as the world burns, with an uncertain future longing for the past — because we need each other.
Dessner produced the final Frightened Rabbit album. Hutchison, the band’s lead vocalist and songwriter committed suicide in May 2018 — news that wrecked me as Frightened Rabbit means more to me than nearly any other artist. ↩