Review Summary: Fucking up your classic.Big Red Machine
begins promisingly. Aaron Dessner's electronics are simple, but they stutter enough to land on the Pitchfork-approved glitchy side of James Blakecore, and Vernon's vocal line is an easy winner which humbly catches the listener's attention - "I will lay, laid open". Why he then decided a Bob Dylan impersonation was appropriate for the chorus and second verse of the song is anyone's guess – the effect is closer to Adam Granduciel singing on a Sleep Well Beast
song, which really, just one indie darling too fucking far – but it's not hard to see why "Deep Green" was earmarked as an opener. It announces itself, and by extension the album, with an understated grace and simplicity. Then "Gratitude" follows and does exactly the same thing, like down to the electronic pattern and understated vocal intro, ten times better. We're not five minutes into Big Red Machine
before it undercuts itself with the placement of a single. At the least this is an honest way of putting your weaknesses right upfront for the audience to see, because the flow of this album is ridiculous and frustrating, constantly figure-eighting itself by grouping similar songs back-to-back and doing all it can to remind you of how good the EP tracks are, to the detriment of literally everything else.
It's a record clearly constructed around the four pre-released tracks, a slightly janky house on top of rock-solid foundations. In what will become a familiar move, these clear highlights either interrupt or are interrupted by the album around them. The digital gospel "Hymnostic" and clear album-topper "Forest Green" make a tranquil mid-album stopgap to die for, but the former is such an obvious closer that throwing it out halfway through is equivalent to wasting it. The wonderful "Gratitude" is muted by the almost identical track before it and quickly drowned out by the two most bangin' bangers, "Lyla" and Yeezus
-lite "Air Stryp", which awkwardly fade into the bruised optimism of "Hymnostic". Of the newer tracks, "I Won't Run From It" presents a lovely excursion into acoustics that sings with bare traces For Emma, Forever Ago
, while "People Lullaby" edges upon realising the ambient lovestruck atmosphere that the album is clearly gunning for. These two songs make a case for an album which could have stood as a separate entity, diverse yet cohesive, with no songs jutting out of it at strange angles like some modern art piece.
Obviously, this is not how I wanted or expected to feel about the Big Red Machine
album. The words I used to describe those first four songs ran along a pretty clear theme - "minimalist", "meditative", "subtlety" - fancy ways of saying that EP was a relaxed, beautiful 20 minutes inside Justin Vernon's musical topography. One song here takes the repetition of meditation to the extreme, and it works as a perfect summation of the album's strengths and weaknesses. The production of "OMDB" is lovely, bringing the best out of Dessner's clicks and clatters and the lush acoustic guitar that erupts halfway through. By the same token we can hear Vernon's voice in vivid detail, as he alights on a vocal melody which is intriguing for two minutes, okay for another two and actively grating for the final three. It's hard not to think back to how "Forest Green" changes melodic tack halfway through to keep things fresh, or "Lyla"'s stunning left turn into an instrumental coda, or 22, A Million
's brutally economic runtime. If that album was an exercise in marrying tight songcraft to expansive soundscapes, packing hours of ideas into a fleet 34 minutes, Big Red Machine
is the opposite: songs begin on an idea and vamp on it long past the point of no return, stretching an EP's worth of brilliant moments into an album. I'm resisting the obvious urge to go with a "well they fucked this up" line in conclusion – future negative reviewers, go crazy – but Big Red Machine
is an exercise in expectation and follow-through, and in how throwing a bunch of good ideas at a song doesn’t make a good song, nor a bunch of great tracks onto vinyl wax a great album.