Derived from the eponymous track the duo contributed to 2009’s Dark Was the Night benefit compilation, the Big Red Machine project finds indie rock heavy-hitters Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner sifting through timeless metaphysical dilemmas over glitchy digital dreamscapes and ethereal experimental loops. In each other, the pair found a seamless match, a spiritual kinship in both tone and aesthetic. Featuring guest spots from a rotating roster which includes the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Lisa Hannigan, and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, the self-titled feature-length debut creates a self-contained artist coalition, a functional showcase of the capabilities of the new streaming platform PEOPLE (which was, incidentally, launched by Vernon and Dessner).
Very much keeping in step with Justin Vernon’s career trajectory thus far, Big Red Machine boasts bleak lyricism layered over vivid sound collages, serving as a creative companion to Peter Gabriel’s 21st-century output. Whether the album is exploring melodic, upbeat numbers (“Air Stryp”) or sweet, stirring odes (“People Lullabye”), it is always draped in swirling, cosmic vistas. Longtime fans of Vernon and Dessner will be able to pinpoint the distinct contributions of each, and the pairing seems as natural as a collaboration could hope to be, highlighting their intrinsic similarities while still complimenting each other’s individualistic touches. In essence, Dessner provides much needed focus for Vernon’s sprawling experimentation.
At first, the album struggles to confidently display its own creative identity, but once the duo find their resolute footing, Big Red Machine comes into its own on the back half of its tracklist. Warm, expansive tracks like “Forest Green” and “OMDB” break from the rigid structure, highlighting the patient synth patterns with their crystalline production. It’s in these moments that Vernon and Dessner are able to poetically marry electronic musings with acoustic flourishes, on tracks like “Lyla,” ‘’Gratitude,” and “Hymnostic,” deliberately evoking communal spiritualism in the process. Some of the tracks abandon the digital backbone altogether, as on the refreshingly minimalist “I Won’t Run From It.”
Big Red Machine swings for the fences, dripping with ambition and fervor. While it bears the undeniable markings of a budding collaboration, it shows promise, skillfully exhibiting the potential of a felicitous partnership. There is a delicate charm to this chill jam session amongst friends, and it often strives for something far deeper, with its raw, gospel vitality and stinging beat poet flows. Although the record isn’t nearly as polished as we’ve come to expect from Vernon and Dessner’s previous body of work, fans of either are sure to latch onto its pithy allure, and it certainly fosters curiosity for its inevitable follow-up.