Preview: Big Red Machine to feature various collaborators on new genre-fluid album

Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner, in collaboration with a wide-range of artists, tell introspective stories of nostalgia and loneliness in ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’

by Anne Johnakin | 7/9/21 1:00am

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Courtesy of Annie Qiu 

by Annie Qiu / The Dartmouth

Big Red Machine, a duo composed of The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, is releasing its second album “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?” on Aug. 27. The album is the latest installment in a burst of creative energy and wide-ranging collaboration, sparked by the pandemic, from Dessner and Vernon. Leading up to the album drop, they have released three singles that offer a glimpse into the experimental compilation. 

For their most recent single, “Renegade,” Vernon and Desssner team up with a familiar partner: Taylor Swift. The three previously collaborated on Swift’s last two albums: “Folklore” and “Evermore,” which pair Swift’s songwriting abilities with the indie, weathered sound of Vernon and Dessner. Swift fans and critics alike positively received this partnership. Now, eyes turn to the BRM album as it adds at least two more songs to this collaboration, the first of which diverges from their past work. 

“Renegade” follows in the stylistic vein of the trio’s previous releases: Swift leads the vocals, and Vernon’s background voice adds texture. Swift and Dessner shine lyrically, just as they do on Swift’s own albums. But “Renegade” isn’t just another Taylor Swift song. It deals with a lover frustrated with their partner’s mental health struggles — the opposite point of view Swift has traditionally taken in her autobiographical songs. “Is it insensitive for me to say, get your shit together? / So I can love you / Is it really your anxiety that stops you from giving me everything? / Or do you just not want to?” 

The album’s visual aesthetics follow the theme of fragmented reminiscence. The cover is full of obscured images and bright colors, evocative of a college band’s experimental phase — a far cry from the quiet, lost-in-time forests of Swift’s “Folklore” and “Evermore.”  

Collaborations with one of the world’s biggest artists will no doubt draw many listeners to the release, but this should not overshadow the other artists featured on the album. The opening track, titled “Latter Days,” features Anaïs Mitchell and tells the story of a natural disaster. Mitchell, who is best known for her concept album that birthed the Broadway musical “Hadestown,” is no stranger to singing tales of woe. “Latter Days” opens with haunting whistles and vocals as Mitchell introduces the scene with a voice that sounds like warm milk: “You were stocking up before the storm / Stacked yourself against the odds / Talking back to an act of God.” The retrospective lyrics pair well with Vernon and Mitchell’s somber duet. The song sets the tone for the rest of the album, which should include two other songs featuring Mitchell.

It would be unfair to say that this album shines because of its collaborations, though. The third released single, titled “The Ghost of Cincinnati,” proves the Vernon and Dessner duo can hold their own. The song’s lyrics are a testament to Cincinnati, a city the duo share a history with. In between lines pointing to specific Cincinnati locations, Dessner sings “I park at this spot and stare at the water / Try to remember I’m somebody’s father.” An introspection that further marks the ownership of this album, these are Vernon and Dessner’s stories. The song’s steady guitar strum is reminiscent of a swiftly moving river, adding to the overwhelmed yet tired atmosphere the lyrics create. “I'm overspеnt / Overworked / Overlooked / I'm Over-the-Rhine,” Dessner croons throughout the song. 

Dessner’s vocals are a welcome departure from BRM’s Vernon-heavy first album. It should be interesting to hear whether or not this shift remains consistent through the rest of the album. Its folkiness pairs better with the tone of the album so far than Vernon’s declarative, new-age voice. 

In the three released songs, Vernon and Dessner have created an acoustic, atmospheric vault of stories — a mood which, if kept consistent with the rest of the forthcoming album, would move the group away from the electric sounds they experimented with in their 2018 self-titled debut album. The rest of the record is slated to have more collaborations in store, including Fleet Foxes and Sharon Van Etten, that suggest they are taking the album in an indie direction. However, features from Ilsey and Naeem, both artists who reside in the hip-hop realm, may offer different creative paths for the tracks. 

Regardless of the genre the rest of the album will take, listeners should expect a strong album lyrically, focusing on past memories and showcasing stories different from those already told by Dessner and Vernon in other projects. Dessner’s lyrics for “Brycie,” the 14th song on the album, will explore a deep love for his twin brother and follow the album’s thread addressing the struggles of mental health. 

The emotional vulnerability and maturity this album delivers so far is beyond Big Red Machine’s previous forays. Lyrics written before the pandemic, such as those in “Latter Days,” are sung with new care afterward. The testament to vulnerability and partnership, with themes of escape and loneliness expanded on through the album now hold new significance. “How there was no hiding place / So we called each other brothers / In the latter days, in the latter days.” Given the exploratory nature of the album’s aesthetic so far, listeners should expect the August release to contain songs that connect to themes of nostalgia and introspection but are not strictly bound to one genre.