Review Summary: More time.
When Big Red Machine blazed its way into our ears at the beginning of the summer, there was a palpable sense of anticipation bubbling from then on. Little was announced, aside from a quartet of tracks that kind of made up an EP but also mostly didn’t. Regardless, I was enamored with them. “Gratitude” and “Lyla” formed looping, hypnotic kaleidoscopes that I entrenched myself in immediately, while “Forest Green” took longer to sink its claws in me. Still teetering on the edge of a doomed relationship, the prophetic repetition of “I was gonna give you more time / More space / But I can’t” flooded into my bloodstream, piercing a vein in the process that purged me of such anguish, releasing it into the music. My introspective journey through the summer became soundtracked by the four songs. The few months between the release of the "EP" and the full album was nevertheless enough to have developed a deep emotional connection with the tracks. It’s only fair now that at the end of the summer the final album should arrive to cap it off as not just a finished product, but as an end to a phase of life.
This strange release schedule now seems to define how we listen to it, comparing the songs that came before to the ones we’re just now hearing for the first time. Do they stand up to the first releases？Do they capture our hearts the same way？Does it matter？The pristine original four songs grew on me greatly over time as I latched onto them personally. I don’t feel the same for these new ones, but who’s to say I won’t？It’s true that on average, the songs from this new album aren’t as good as the ones that were released before, but that doesn’t make me any less grateful for them. I now have the opportunity to view these songs, now deeply important to me, in a new light. While I listened to them countlessly in their original order, now I hear them rearranged, aside new songs that they were truly meant to go with. This breathes new life into them in a way; we see them now in this new context that both enhances them as well as reframes them. We can hear things we didn’t before, in ways we couldn’t before.
This notion of the songs new and old contrasting and combining to form unique flavors is in turn reflected within the music itself. Building off of his deep-dive into electronica with his last album 22, a Million
, Justin Vernon, mastermind of Bon Iver, adds a significant layer of depth to the experience. It’s still largely based in electronic loops and chirps, but they operate out of something warmer. There’s a lush, organic feel to nearly the entire release, binding it together like a heart (possibly the “Big Red Machine”) beating at the center of a cyborg. This dynamic between homey, more naturalistic sounds like acoustics and strings makes for an eclectic but tantalizing listening experience, with the folky, country-esque twang of “I Won’t Run from It” contrasting heavily with the aggressive arcade-like whir of “Air Stryp.” It seems to be a culmination not just of Vernon’s experiences as an artist, the electronic wizard finally making peace with the woodsman of his past (as track titles like “Forest Green” also suggest), but of all the experiences of a highly diverse and talented group of artists. It’s acoustic versus electronic. It’s nature versus artificiality. It’s nostalgia versus the future.
Perhaps versus is the wrong word. The two are never pitted against each other in a way that’s pining for a bloodthirsty winner. The turning point in “OMDB,” placed squarely in the middle of the song, where acoustic strumming blissfully flows over thudding beats and glitchy vocals until Vernon finally stops crooning and the strings take his place, is a perfect example of how the elements can combine into something beautiful through the symbiosis of all these genres and people present on this record meld together in a way that’s moving and otherworldly.
Because while Vernon’s voice is the most present, both vocally and artistically, it’s impossible to discount the fact that this is a group project. I’ve always thought of him as akin to a folky Peter Gabriel, surrounding himself with artists yet planting himself squarely in the center of the vision, and dancing always with progressive elements that often put him at odds with his genre. The National’s Aaron Dessner of course has a large stake in the sound, guiding the soundscape through his experience with the acclaimed alternative rock act, and he and Vernon have an army of folk and rock musicians behind them. Any track’s credits could contain almost 20 artists, and while some may be heard more than others, they’re all undoubtably essential to maintaining the scope of sounds featured in the project.
Thanks to the way it’s been released over the months, Big Red Machine
now seems to have a deep questioned formed at the root of it: How does time affect our connection to music？It’s not one that can easily be answered, but it’s one that I suspect is intentional with the mode of release. From the unique mix of old and new sounds to the reliance on both nature and machines, it seems that Vernon and Co. must also have been performing an experiment with our familiarity with the music. Four tracks at the beginning of the summer, with two more quietly released on Spotify in the middle before it finally was finally flushed out in full form at the end. Here is a series of songs that we all know differently well, and yet they indisputably fit together. I have more questions than answers about how time will affect this release. But there is only one way that we’ll all be able to know.
Give it more time.