Album Review: Big Red Machine – How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?

[Jagjaguwar/37d03d; 2021]

The rise of Justin Vernon, from humble folk-beardo from Wisconsin to ‘indie’ mega collaborator is nothing short of peculiar. He started, as stated, writing songs on acoustic guitars about heartache like so many, but his vocal range was nothing short of remarkable. As a result, Vernon found himself as the indie darling.

And so it goes: the small project Bon Iver became a headliner at Lollapalooza, and from there a tremendous rise to the mainstream. With the exception perhaps of 2019’s i,i his music has undergone continuous reinvention, whether considered pretentious or not; 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver employed a full band and pushed collaboration to the forefront, while 2016’s masterpiece 22, A Million still causes head-scratching due to its strong auto-tune embellishments and fragmented narrative.

Never one to shy away from collaboration, Vernon’s project with The National’s Aaron Dessner, dubbed Big Red Machine (probably a nod to the Cincinnati Reds) has survived to this point thanks to a devoted fanbase, even if the debut self-titled from 2018 hasn’t aged particularly well. A course correct wasn’t necessarily needed, Dessner and Vernon don’t need Big Red Machine to be a rousing success – they’ve barely even toured the project – but their sophomore effort How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? improves upon almost every criticism of their debut.

On Big Red Machine, the features were quieter – Phoebe Bridgers made a respectable appearance on highlight “Lyla”, for example. But, three years later – and one of those being in a lockdown state – has given the duo access to a more robust roster. None of the guests are particularly surprising, but the lineup still displays a few dream team collaborations. While the Michael Stipe-assisted “No Time for Love Like Now” from 2019 doesn’t show up, Taylor Swift does.

Not that anyone’s counting, but this marks the third album that Swift, Dessner, and Vernon have collaborated on in about a year. This isn’t a leftovers situation either, the Folklore highlight “exile”, which featured Bon Iver, was one of the album’s biggest selling points for non-Swifties, and it’s a decent song. But here, Swift is confined to what Vernon and Dessner want, which isn’t exactly her forte – but it still suits her. “Renegade” is a strong single, featuring a duetted chorus from Swift and Vernon, their vocal combination working better here than on “exile”. “Are you really gonna talk about timing in times like these?” the two ask, which is loose enough to be a reference to any moment of drama, but is most likely a nod to the pandemic that has literally upended the planet – and provided them the opportunity to collaborate in the first place. The second Swift feature is “Birch”, a beautiful piano-led ballad where she takes a backseat to Vernon – perhaps the only time she’s been reduced to backing singer.

Elsewhere, fellow king of folk Robin Pecknold aka Fleet Foxes brings some of that sunny disposition felt on last year’s wonderful Shore to “Phoenix”. Hearing two of indie-folk’s most notable voices together is a bit of a golden nostalgic moment. Pecknold’s always a joy to hear, his voice is so naturally beautiful, and in combination with both Anaïs Mitchell and Vernon’s falsettos, it’s perfect for a nap in the hammock (in a good way).

Two tracks here are a bit overstuffed with guests, but there’s no damage done except perhaps a wasted opportunity. Sharon Van Etten features on “Hutch”, alongside Irish folk songwriter Lisa Hannigan and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova, but these three women are done disservices though, utilized merely for harmonies. An excellent Bon Iver track it is, but for those involved it’s slightly disappointing there isn’t more from them. “June’s a River”, on the other hand, gives ample spotlight to guests Ben Howard and This is The Kit, while fans of 22, A Million highlight “715 – CRΣΣKS” will enjoy hearing Vernon once more on the custom made instrument, the Messina.

On the songs without guests, Dessner and Vernon both take turns on lead vocals, which helps to balance all the features – but, clocking in at 15 tracks and 65 minutes, it does make the album run a little longer than it needs to. Dessner’s heartfelt “Bryce” is intended for his twin brother (also in The National), while the two pair well on “Magnolia”. “Reese” resembles some unused Bon Iver, Bon Iver ideas, but it’s still everything fans of Vernon have come to appreciate.

With all these guests crammed into one album, it’s a wonder that How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? isn’t a giant mess. Instead, there’s a lot to love about it. It’s a tad too long, and some of the talent is under-utilized, but Dessner and Vernon have created a worthwhile follow-up to their humble debut.