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Big Red Machine - Big Red Machine (Album Review)

Tuesday, 11 September 2018 Written by Helen Payne

Photo: Graham Tolbert

A collaboration between two indie heavyweights - Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner of the National - Big Red Machine is exactly what you’d expect it to be. This multifaceted new project finds two musicians bringing what they know best to the party while also letting the other do their thing.

Let’s start with the satisfying flecks that have been carried over from their day jobs. The openers, Deep Green and Gratitude, have percussion samples that could easily have been born during the National’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’ sessions, and the latter leans towards the sort of soft guitar line that lit up the seminal ‘Boxer’. Hymnostic’s bold, celebratory piano chords, meanwhile, are eerily similar to Carin At The Liquor Store.

On the Bon Iver side, the fuzzy, heart-wrenching feeling that drew so many to ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ is emulated on Forest Green with the line “I was going to give you more of my time.”

Similarly, whether you’re listening to the sample-heavy, chaotic ‘22, A Million’ or ‘Big Red Machine’, you’ll hear those tinges of experimental electronics. Vernon’s voice is enchanting, greeting us with a warm hug. It’s permeated by sadness, but protective. 

Lyla catches us in the gut with R&B rhythms and a gospel chorus singing “I’m already off your reservation” in a poignant, indelible melody. The collection of vocal styles varies on each track, from high pitched harmonies á la ‘For Emma…’ on People Lullaby, to a rich collective singalong on Hymnostic. Vernon even tickles the edges of a newfound hip-hop career, spitting out “uh” between each line of the verse.

The record briefly loses its way on Air Stryp at the one mintue mark, with an amalgamation of textures and electronic samples forming an uncomfortable crush alongside the incongruous lyric “drive by vroom”. This is the only sticking point to be found, though, and we soon head back to (relative) normality.

It's worth noting that ‘Big Red Machine’ is intended to be more than just a collection of songs by Vernon and Dessner. As a flagship release following the founding of their community-based project and streaming platform PEOPLE, it is also designed to be part of a conversation, plus a friendship that’s ever-growing and changing. It’s an album made with human interaction in mind, and succeeds in representing something more wide-reaching than the sum of its parts.

Although written and initiated by Dessner and Vernon, the music was only taken to a certain point before it was sent far and wide, with an open invitation for contributions and ideas. The list of credits on I Won’t Run From It - a track that belongs on both a cartoon beach in a Disney film and on a Jack Johnson album at sunset -  includes Kate Stables of This Is The Kit, Lisa Hannigan, Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire, members of the Staves, Luluc and a handful more contributors.

‘Big Red Machine’ is, at once, a guitar-focused, electronica-inflected National album helmed by Vernon, and a Bon Iver LP taken over by the rockist inclinations of the National, with a little help from their friends. Well, as the closing track reminds us, you are who you are.

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