Review Summary: Well we better not fuck this up.
Justin Vernon is so much more than just Bon Iver. There is a through-line you can trace across that project's three albums – it's tangled up in Vernon's own self-created mythology of people and places, Wisconsin landmarks and changing seasons, but it's there. Identifying the through-line for his work in general is not so easy. His heart is in Winconsin, yes, but there's no guarantee where on the musical map Vernon will end up at any given time. The closest reference for Big Red Machine
is "I Need a Forest Fire", which was more unvarnished and clear-eyed than 22, A Million
, yet even that song prioritised the stunning vocal harmonies over a simple background beat. Aaron Dessner, not content to do the same, layers clattering drums, clicks and ticks across the soundscapes of Big Red Machine
, always with an eye towards subtlety.
Minimalism is king here. Songs are composed with a fine paintbrush, sounds surfacing and disappearing into the picture almost constantly, and Vernon deepens his voice or softens his iconic falsetto with vocoder to suit, sticking to simple, cut-up sounding lyrics. This couldn't be better exemplified than in the notes for the record's artwork – spidery lines follow Vernon's lyrical trains of thought all around the page, linking to blood, anatomy, judgement and Native American references like a rough map of the man's labyrinthine inner geography.
"Lyla" is the most dynamic track, with a near hip-hop beat grounding the song for jagged swathes of electric guitar to sear through before a warm blanket of female harmonies closes up the wounds. Outside of that we're basically in ballad territory, albeit ballads chopped up with a shaky straight razor and cauterised in ProTools. Vernon and Dessner waste no time kicking off with the best song, "Forest Green", a heartbreaking plea of a simple repeated "I was gonna give you more time / but I can't" which brings to mind a fan-fiction dream of Bon Iver, Bon Iver
and 22, A Million
meeting halfway. "Hymnostic" announces itself with a Nine Inch Nails-like distortion crunch before a classic Bon Iver piano figure transforms it entirely, and Vernon finally opens up his throat for some falsetto. Lyrically the song almost picks up where "33 GOD" left off, but whereas that song conflated a lover with a religious figure in an attempt to show the clumsy sincerity of love, "Hymnostic" flips the script with lines like "I am not an apparition / but I'll haunt you, you'll see ... I'll be singing for your health / I'll be righteous you'll see" having Vernon take on the spiritual role. But "Graditude" is the track which finds the most emotion inside Justin's cracked repetition. "well I better not fuck this up"
starts things simply enough with an expression of self-doubt, but the sentiment mutates alongside the music, adding in a vicious "well you better not fuck this up while I'm away" and some truly baffling lines like "but I known a couple lovers, some were quarterbacks" I'm pretty sure are genuine jokes.
Just clicking the credits list on the website drops down enough big names to make an indie fan pinch themselves – Phoebe Bridgers, Bryan Devendorf, Bryce Dessner and Lisa Hannigan pop up at a quick glance. But this is no overstuffed indie supergroup where the styles of every artist fight for some breathing room, bar maybe "Lyla" where that's part of the fun. Big Red Machine
is more a meditation. In concept it feels like "22 (OVER SOON)", a spacious reflection on time and mortality which, when you strip away the layers, is simply about a relationship. But Big Red Machine
isn't as sad nor as isolated; inside its passages are corridors of warmth and total vitality, if you care to look.