Big Red Machine, the duo of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner, are an indie supergroup akin to a 2015 Tumblr fantasy. However, it’s not 2015 anymore, and the reality of their star-studded second album, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, leaves a little to be desired.
The record lasts for over an hour, and like most side projects, it doesn’t shy away from its self-indulgent direction. Big Red Machine is a mechanism for Dessner and Vernon to create music in a way that they couldn’t through their day job, although anyone who has heard a recent Bon Iver album will know that he doesn’t need any encouragement to explore new territories.
However, that’s not what Big Red Machine is about. Instead, on How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, Vernon revisits the folkier side of his brain that has been left on a latch for the last decade while he got lost in a sea of autotune and pioneeringly shifting alternative music into a new realm.
There are moments smattered across the record which leave you feeling as though you’ve awoken from a time capsule and returned to the For Emma, Forever Ago, Wisconsin log cabin halcyon era of Bon Iver. Opener ‘Latter Days’ sees Anais Mitchell make her first appearance on the record, and her vocals juxtapose succinctly with that of Vernon’s. Yes, she doesn’t have the name value of Taylor Swift – who also appears on the album – but her contribution to the record far exceeds the star name. Sadly, these flashes are few and far between.
Swift appears on two tracks and adds little worth to the record. If the pop singer had the same number of Instagram followers as Mitchell, one doubts she’d make the record’s final cut. The eerie ‘Birch’ misses the mark as she duets with Vernon and, on her other contribution, ‘Renegade’, sees Swift take the limelight and sees Big Red Machine stray too far into the pop vicinity.
Furthermore, Ben Howard and This Is The Kit’s to ‘June’s A River’ simply feels like a track by the former as the Big Red Machine step into the shadows. In comparison, the country-tinged ‘Mimi’, which features Ilsey sharing the vocals with Vernon, is the most heavenly track on the record and offers another example of star power not necessarily correlating to a reflection of talent. Additionally, ‘Phoenix’ with Fleet Foxes and Anais Mitchell is spinetingling, but unfortunately, the rest of the album isn’t so rich in heartfelt gusto.
The record meanders along at a leisurely pace throughout, and this is embodied by the tranquil, ‘8:22 am’. Although the track is blissful enough, it fails to transmit a rich sense of emotion and doesn’t grab you by your collar.
What makes How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? such a frustrating listen is that the talent is there, and on a handful of songs, the album makes you believe you’re listening to greatness, then it just aimlessly drifts into mediocracy. In truth, Big Red Machine is merely a plaything to Dessner and Vernon. There are the grains of a masterpiece in this album, but unfortunately, they didn’t let it grow into that. This ultimately leaves the record under a cloud of disappointment.