Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon’s respective primary musical projects, though contemplative, are hardly shy. Dessner is known for his role on keys and guitar in the National, with its razor-sharp, stadium-filling sadness; Vernon is the voice and mind behind the thick, insulating layers of Bon Iver. Their joint project Big Red Machine is somewhat quieter. Now, on their second album, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, Vernon and Dessner meander and dwell via looped electronic beats, soft piano chords and acoustic guitar, creating a world that, for all its uncertainty, manages to be calming.
The album itself is long, and each song sprawls for several minutes. Perhaps it is Vernon’s association with wilderness and isolation from Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, which he wrote in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods, or the National’s evocations of never-ending cityscapes – but there is a sense of wandering alone through vastness. There are other traces of past identities: in Vernon’s instantly recognisable falsetto, which appears in the chorus of opener “Latter Days” over melancholy piano and tender vocals by Anaïs Mitchell; and in “Reese”, where quiet brass backing recalls the trademark sound of the National. Yet in the shuffling electronic beats, such as in “Birch” and “June’s a River”, Big Red Machine divert from the clear-cut emotions they express elsewhere and inhabit a misty grey area.
The album’s unassuming nature is perhaps unsurprising given Dessner’s preference to take a supporting role. Yet in another sense it is all the more remarkable given its star-studded track list. Mitchell, who has collaborated with Vernon before, features three times, and there are one-offs with Sharon Van Etten, Ben Howard, This Is The Kit and Fleet Foxes. Anyone previously unfamiliar with Dessner and Vernon’s close-knit circle of alternative folk musicians may be surprised to see two consecutive songs with Taylor Swift, but her presence is the continuation of a collaboration that began with a pop-folk, rather than folk-pop, crossover: Swift’s own 2020 album Folklore.
She blends in easily here, just as Dessner did on her record (along with its follow-up, Evermore). On “Birch” she takes a backseat to Vernon, and on “Renegade”, whose melody is immediately recognisable as Swiftian, there is no trace of any previous pop-diva persona. One of the first tracks Dessner and Swift collaborated on was Folklore’s slow, mournful “Cardigan”, which is too overpowered by its clumsy title simile to be truly affecting. Here, she is, pleasingly, more direct: “Is it insensitive for me to say/‘Get your shit together, so I can love you?’”
“Renegade” is a slow-burner of a pop song, with Vernon’s vocals adding texture and pace in the final chorus, and there is a sense of drive that some of the other songs on the album lack. Lyrically, Big Red Machine focus on questions, possibilities, lost potential: on “Reese” it’s, “What you shoulda been/What you woulda been”; the bridge of “Phoenix” is a list of abstract questions (“How do you bear the full weight?”, “How do you stay in that tower?”). Combined with the blurred edges of the music, which becomes particularly wishy-washy towards the middle of the album on “Hoping Then” and “Mimi”, this can be ungrounding – though not unpleasant when accepted as part of the whole. A change of vocal tone helps, too, which is granted by the frequent featured artists and Dessner’s own singing on later track “Magnolia”.
The most profound moment comes two-thirds through on “Hutch”, a tribute to the Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison, who died by suicide in 2018. “You were alive/And you were unafraid” is the opening lyric, before more questions, which feel more specific here: “How did you lose your way?”; “What can you tell me now?” It’s a moving tribute, and testament to the musical power that Dessner and Vernon have when they are focused and united. The combination of Big Red Machine’s repetitive piano motifs, looped drums and classic folk songwriting becomes sharper with every listen. If How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is not always clear in its intentions, it is bold in its understated beauty.