The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon joined minds to create Big Red Machine with their debut self-titled album in 2018, but the story of the band’s conception started a decade prior. Dessner and Vernon first connected in 2008 when the former sent Vernon a song titled “big red machine.” To Vernon, the “big red machine” portrayed a beating heart, leading to the heart of the band that listeners have come to love today. The debut album leaned toward an experimental sound, something that Dessner described as “structured experimentalism.” It was like having one foot rooted in place while the other was halfway outside of reality — a fantastic amalgamation of frenzied sounds.
Following up with their latest album, Big Red Machine once again explore new sounds, but this time in the form of collaborations with artists like Anaïs Mitchell, Taylor Swift and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, to name a few. The results are slightly different from the duo’s first project. This time, the tracklist of songs careens in a tender direction, with empty spaces being filled by the voices of those who have come to represent the band’s latest album.
How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? weaves in stories that were previously left untold by Dessner, uncovering deeply personal subjects treated in the most approachable way — that is, through the harmonies and creative vulnerability shared between artists. Dessner shared, “This is all music I generated, but it is interesting to hear how different people relate to it, or how different voices collide with it. That’s what makes it special. With everyone that's on this record, there's an openness, a creative generosity and an emotional quality that connects it all together.”
As several singles arrived prior to the album’s full release, we were given small glimpses of the kind of earnest sound divulged throughout the titles — from the powerful “Phoenix” to Taylor Swift’s sweet and airy vocals narrating a challenging relationship. Themes of familial trauma, the lamentations of growing up and the reflection of relationships are apparent across the album in evocative songs like “The Ghost of Cincinnati,” “Latter Days” and “Bryce.” Amid slow-moving piano melodies, flickering guitar strums and layered vocals that create the album’s ever-warm but stirring ambiance, it’s apparent that this latest project comes from a place close to the duo’s own big red machine. To aptly address the varying topics of childhood, marriage, family and more, the band poses the question: How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?