Review Summary: some things last a long time
At the risk of sounding like a living cliché, a read of the recent NY Times piece on Aaron Dessner provides some vital context clues for the unravelling of How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?
, Big Red Machine's seemingly fractured-on-the-surface new album. "I'll catch myself in little patterns, where I get this feeling that you could build some sort of architecture out of it," Dessner says, and one's mind immediately jumps to the hallmarks that are even more pronounced in Big Red Machine: the circular piano motifs, glitchy electronics and gospel-like layered vocals he turns to time and again. It's not just a musical affectation, it turns out, but a personal preference linked to a heavier piece of personal history. "I was going through a fairly severe depression when I was a teenager [...] I found that playing music in this way is soothing to me. The rhythm and melody are in this circular way of playing. That's when I feel the best with music."
Dessner's struggle with depression is very much at the core of this album, though not always in ways that are obvious or expected. It drops like a stone into the musical landscape of the record and ripples outward, colouring its styles and sonic detours. "This is Aaron's record," Justin Vernon says in the same feature, and he's not exaggerating. Between singing three vital songs on his own and creating the canvases for Vernon and others to perform over, sketching out the album's emotional landscape with his found architecture, there's no doubt Dessner is the guiding hand behind every moment here. Look a little closer, past the tracklist and stacked list of names: this album isn't fractured at all. It's a vibrant, technicolour journey with big ideas and moments bursting out of its seams, but paradoxically, it also feels like Dessner's smallest and most intimate work.
I'm reminded, strangely, of The Finn Brothers' Everyone is Here
. One of the greatest and simplest pop albums of all time, every song, no matter how upbeat or pensive, seemed ultimately to return to the idea of family as framed through the lens of two brothers singing as one. How Long...
is mired in similar questions of history and community, familial or otherwise, and the ways the choice to simply exist in the world with other humans is an increasingly loaded one. The album is bookended by two ballads featuring Anaïs Mitchell, both of which seem to blur the lines between Vernon and Dessner's recollections of childhood. The closer, "New Auburn", recalls younger days traveling through the Wisconsin countryside which could be from either musician's past, although its sequencing after "Brycie" suggests an image of the younger Dessner twins, driving across the state where a young Vernon was growing up. Even the album cover is a shot of Aaron, Bryce and their sister Jessica, taken on a trip to see their grandmother in a nursing home. From the packaging on down, from the first notes of the haunting "Latter Days", How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?
is built on a foundation of family and deep history.
You might be thinking that the biggest name of all, Justin Vernon, kind of sounds sidelined. No doubt the velvet-voiced Bon Iver frontman is in more of a supporting role here than 2018's Big Red Machine
, but it's a mischaracterisation to suggest he's sitting in the backseat while Dessner drives. Not only are Vernon's sonic fingerprints all over the record even when he's not singing, but this was the clear destination of his musical arc over the last decade. From the spare one-man albums that made his name – not only For Emma, Forever Ago
, but the oft-forgotten Self Record
– he grew out of the sad-man-in-cabin shtick towards a vibrant musical community waiting to embrace him, resulting in the explosions of sound and collaboration that were Big Red Machine
. How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?
might be what he was always running towards: a freely collaborative experience with a revolving door of friends to push his famous voice in new and exciting directions.
This is still a Big Red Machine album from the themes down to the songwriting, with various artists adding colour to the mix where required - barring the Taylor Swift-led "Renegade", which lands a little too close to the territory "long story short" staked on evermore
. Ben Howard's "June's a River", hardly an instant standout, becomes on repeated listens a moody post-script to the album's darker themes before a truly lovely tonal shift, while the stunningly gorgeous "Phoenix" creates a picture of Fleet Foxes opening up some blinds and letting sunlight dapple the room after a melancholy beginning. That lightness even spills over to Vernon on the next track, as he movingly sings "the way I wake up now / is a brand new way / it ain't the way it was before", a hint of the man undertaking his own enigmatic journey parallel to the album's primary one.
That main journey is Dessner's, and it's fleshed out through a trio of songs bearing only his voice, which all stand as some of the best Big Red Machine have written to date. "Magnolia" and "Brycie" surprisingly do the indie pop sound better than "Renegade", with absolutely gorgeous choruses and Dessner's straightforward vocal only adding to their more universal appeal. The latter, a heartfelt ode to Aaron's twin brother, who helped see him through his childhood depression and whose string arrangements across the album relate to the songwriting with the comfortable familiarity of years, is the most important moment on the album, where the arc of family is brought to a close. The third Dessner-led track "The Ghost of Cincinnati" cuts through all the clutter like a knife, simply by foregoing everything except for a stripped-back Elliott Smith-style acoustic strum. It's a centrepiece in many ways: reducing the narrator to a ghost haunting the streets of his hometown, Dessner paints a picture of a man fading from view even as he contemplates a more permanent and unambiguous end: "I park at this spot and stare at the water / try to remember I'm somebody's father [...] now I'm in the big time, not a suicide." Placed in the larger context of an album dealing frankly with depression, it's a sentiment heavy enough to nearly break this fragile folk song. And that's before Big Red Machine drop the real emotional heavyweight, "Hutch", a tribute to the late, dearly missed Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit. Vernon, Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan and Shara Nova sing in a harrowing harmony about their late friend and if they could've done more to help him ("these are things that I wish I could've said to you") and there are few things I can think of recently more utterly shattering.
But this devastating song can't be taken in isolation. Appropriately enough for an album this shamelessly collaborative, salvation is found in community: whether a choir of spine-tingling voices joining together for a last round on "Hutch", two people living through some vague disaster on "Latter Days", or just the pure love between brothers on "Brycie", it's a thesis the album returns to again and again. I do How Long...
a disservice if I make it sound like a grim treatise on despair: Dessner's tracks make up a moving arc which is as much about love persevering through grief as it is about the grief itself. And that's only half the album's key ingredient, with Vernon's songs as gleefully and beautifully hard to decipher as ever, their cryptic slices-of-life the perfect counterpart to Dessner's emotional bareness. The achingly gorgeous "Hoping Then" and "Birch" are instant Vernon classics, with enigmatic hooks - "it's on the edge of why I can't sleep soundly" - cut together with harmonies from, oh y'know, Taylor Swift and Sharon Van Etten over chopped-up backing tracks. Those are straightforward compared to "Easy to Sabotage", which features improvised semi-raps from Vernon and Naeem over jagged, mutating live drums across nearly six minutes; like a panic attack set to music, it's by far the most unsettling and heavy cut in the Big Red Machine discography. Only the somewhat aimless if pleasant "Reese" and "8:22am" recall the most glaring weakness of 2018's debut, the feeling that songs are being made up on the spot with little consideration given to fleshing them out, which is borne out by the fact that they were the first two songs recorded when Vernon and Dessner convened at Long Pond.
In the long run, How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?
will be remembered as a success of chemistry and careful balance. An experiment like this could easily have crashed and burned, drowned under the weight of its expectations and indie-sphere clout before it had a chance to breathe; the sheer quality of collaboration between Vernon and Dessner, even more pronounced with both now taking turns in the singer/lyricist chair, makes it soar instead. Dessner may find comfort in circular motifs - the album does somewhat end where it began - but Big Red Machine aren't going around in circles here. They sound confident and ebullient, and even the darkest moments are tinged with the hope that community and collaboration can bring: the sound of musicians reveling in the sheer, simple joy of making music, with brothers or with the family that they chose.