Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Big Red Machine, the debut self-titled album from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner.
Since Bon Iver’s wintry debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon has been squirming to escape the Justin Vernon Archetype — that he is an antisocial, melodramatic, cabin-dwelling flannel enthusiast. The reality, though, is that the solitude that birthed For Emma is something of an outlier; Vernon’s subsequent output has been characterized by almost nonstop collaboration. At first glance this might read like a way to disentangle himself from the daunting expectations that weigh on each new Bon Iver record. But Vernon seems remarkably comfortable setting his ego aside and ceding the spotlight when it suits the music. Volcano Choir’s wildly divergent albums can attest to that, as can the slinky bedroom smolder of the sole Gayngs record. He dabbled in the jagged barroom blues of The Shouting Matches. He has branched out within the indie world, working with Francis and the Lights and James Blake. He was a major player in Kanye West’s post-Swiftgate creative renaissance (appearing on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne and Yeezus). Just days ago, he showed up on an Eminem album of all places, only to immediately rebuke it.
Big Red Machine, a pairing of Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner, is the latest product of those collaborative instincts. The roots of the duo’s partnership stretch back nearly a decade; the two joined forces in 2009 to contribute a song to Dark Is the Night, a sprawling charity compilation backed by an eye-popping who’s who of indie rock. Now Vernon and Dessner have reunited for a full-length album, bottling the promise of that standalone song in service of something substantially bigger.
It can be difficult as a listener to avoid instantly measuring a record like Big Red Machine up against its predecessors — does it aim for the wounded pastoral beauty of Bon Iver, or does it try to replicate the fussy electronics of 22, A Million? It’s tempting to put the album in a box before allowing it to reveal itself. But the best way to approach this record is as a standalone entity, informed by the history of Bon Iver and The National but unshackled by a predetermined template. Vernon and Dessner get lost in these songs, creating something with both familiarity and singularity within their discographies.
Past records do provide useful context, though; 22, the last Bon Iver record, injected relatively straightforward Vernon songs with abrasive electronic bursts and a dose of autotune well beyond doctor recommendations. Sleep Well Beast, the latest album from The National, nudged the band’s sound in a similar direction, but with a level of restraint 22 wasn’t interested in. Big Red Machine feels like a logical midpoint between the two worlds, never far from collapsing into the chaos of 22 but generally anchored by delicate, conventional songwriting. If it sounds like bet hedging, it plays more like measured diplomacy. BRM doesn’t shy away from wielding the thorny electronics that made 22 so polarizing. But like Beast before it, it uses them as a flourish, ornamentation meant to season the songs without swallowing them whole.
Those disinclined to praise Vernon’s lyricism are unlikely to be won over this time around. His work here, more than ever, darts between inscrutable stream-of-consciousness and heartfelt sentimentality. It’s tempting to smirk at both the deliberative randomness of the former (“We came up out the G league / In a teepee gloss / Where your tea leaves, boss?” he sort-of-raps on the skittering opener “Deep Green”) and the buttoned-up melodrama of the latter (“I am not an apparition, but I will haunt you, you’ll see,” he intones on “Hymnostic”). But Vernon’s emotive, deeply felt delivery sells it. Many of these songs are steeped in Bruce Hornsby-style power-pop, a tough lane to master — without Vernon’s sincerity, they would likely wither.
If much of 22, A Million was warped and frosty, wind-battered and distant, Big Red Machine aims for something decidedly warmer. Dessner’s arrangements give these songs room to breathe, and Vernon sounds notably loose. Their chemistry feels natural and generous, and that easy rapport allows for some of the most diverse and accessible music of either artist’s career. Anxiety courses through “Gratitude” (Vernon yelps a variation on “I better not fuck this up!” throughout), but its instrumentation shimmers with an underlying brightness. “Hymnostic” is deeply influenced by gospel music; “I Won’t Run From It” is acoustic folk with a sprinkling of country. The album falters a bit when it strays from its pop leanings and retreats into knotty experimentalism. The brooding “OMDB” plods aimlessly, unable to support its nearly eight-minute running time. “Air Stryp” is brief, at least, but similarly fails to develop in any meaningful way.
Missteps aside, Big Red Machine strikes a compelling balance, wrapping pleasant indie pop-rock in off-kilter production and arrangements. While it would be a stretch to call this a “fun” record, there’s a persistent lightness that makes this feel like a world apart from most Bon Iver and National albums before it. Just compare the climax of this record to Bon Iver’s “Woods” from the Blood Bank EP a decade ago. On the latter, Vernon howls into the void, wounded and vulnerable. Meanwhile, the final moments of Big Red Machine are punctuated with impassioned chants of “You are who you are” while Vernon prods you to “just follow your feet.” It’s an optimism as contagious as it is surprising.