The red machine feels bigger this time. When Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon released their first album as Big Red Machine back in 2018, it marked the on-record merger of two indie-rock name brands that had long been in each other’s orbit, the singer-songwriter at the heart of Bon Iver and the guitarist-turned-producer extraordinaire from the National. With that kind of pedigree, Big Red Machine should have been a bigger deal. But for whatever reason, the album played more like a minor release in both artists’ catalogs. It could be that because it was not released under the name Bon Iver or the National, and was therefore not directly loaded into fans’ Spotify libraries or whatever, a large swath of casual fans simply didn’t hear about it. It could be that the relative straightforwardness of the exercise compared to your average National or Bon Iver album communicated low stakes. Either way, the album felt as much like a secret gift as a project from these guys could feel by the end of the 2010s.
Much has changed on the Big Red Machine front since then. The National and Bon Iver both released new albums, projects that found both groups continuing to experiment yet sounding ever more like themselves. More importantly with regard to this project’s place in the world, Dessner became a chart-topping, Grammy-winning, stan-adored songwriter and producer, striking up a remote partnership with Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff that yielded two smash albums during the pandemic. With folklore and evermore, Dessner invited Swift into the sonic environment he’s spent the past two decades developing. These were albums of tasteful, organic folk-rock with a downcast spirit and an electronic fringe. Almost every track could have just as easily been graced by Matt Berninger’s mournful yet mischievous baritone — and Berninger indeed duetted with Swift on evermore‘s “Coney Island.”
More than National songs, though, Dessner’s collaborations with Swift felt like Big Red Machine. This much became clear whenever Vernon showed up to sing with Swift. Without Bryan Devendorf’s visceral drum work, Dessner’s arrangements for BRM feel more like atmospheres to swim around in, even when fascinating things are happening with the rhythm. Vernon tends to greet these moody grooves with some of his most direct lyrics and melodies, stuff he’d usually obscure behind effects and obtuse abstraction on a Bon Iver album: “Well I better not fuck this up!” “Over my dead body!” As much as those Swift albums proved this kind of prestige indie could be easily adapted to a mainstream pop template, they also affirmed that a wide range of voices could work within this context. So perhaps it’s only natural that the second Big Red Machine album features, in Dessner’s words, “almost everyone I’ve made a record with.”
The new How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is still, at its foundation, a collaboration between Dessner and Vernon. The Bon Iver singer’s hearty Midwestern bellows and falsetto are a near-constant presence throughout these 15 songs. This time, though, he’s frequently joined by a rotating cast of guests, most of whom have worked with these guys before: Sharon Van Etten, Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, Kate Stables of This Is The Kit, Lisa Hanigan, Ilsey, Naeem, La Force, Shara Nova, Ben Howard. Anaïs Mitchell, lately known as a member of Bonny Light Horseman and the creator of the Broadway musical Hadestown, appears three times. Dessner even steps to the mic for a couple songs. And yes, Swift is on there too, disappearing into the background of “Birch” and taking the lead on “Renegade.” The result is a little bit Broken Social Scene gone pastoral, a little bit The Last Waltz gone to the farmer’s market. It’s nice.
How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is clearly a product of loving creative devotion. The lyrics feel deeply personal, often flashing back to childhood, brimming with some blend of joy and ache. The melodies go down easy. Arrangements this meticulous don’t just materialize out of nowhere. Dessner, Vernon, and usual suspects like Jonathan Low and Brad Cook have only gotten better at developing fascinating textures. The craftsmanship is remarkable. Yet this is not the kind of record that blows you away; it’s the kind you sit with, that becomes your trusted companion over time. Or maybe it drifts in one ear and out the other, and you move on. Such is the case with records that have traded out the explosiveness of youth for a sighing middle-aged grace.
Big Red Machine have delivered a long album that sometimes feels less like a collection of songs than a laboratory for vibes. A few tracks are more overtly exploratory than others — the flickering, deconstructed “Hoping Then,” the urgent Auto-Tuned almost-rapping on “Easy To Sabotage” — but they mostly exist in the same somber, elegant zone, cycling through reliable elements like acoustic arpeggios and plaintive piano and gently skittering beats. It feels less like these artists pushing themselves into new territory than refining what they already do well, finding different paths to the same emotional place.
It speaks to how much ground the Big Red Machine braintrust has already covered and how profoundly they’ve impacted the sound of indie rock, but at this point in their careers, even their experiments play like comfort food. And in this case, the portions are huge. (Another thing the slightly overlong folklore and evermore proved is that hipster adult contemporary could work just as well as bulk-issue streaming-era zone-out music as, say, a deluxe Lil Baby album.) Skeptics might reasonably find themselves wondering how long this is gonna last after one too many voyages to the heart of stylish melancholy. But for fans of this crew, the album is a treasure trove to be sifted through — and given Ms. Swift’s involvement, that treasure is not likely to stay buried this time.
How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is out 8/27 on Jagjaguwar/37d03d.