Review: Big Red Machine - Big Red Machine

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Big Red Machine          

Big Red Machine         

The collaborative project from Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Aaron Dessner (The National) is a collection of beautiful free-flowing sonic masterpieces for the listener to get lost in, with the occasional glimmer of hope.

★★★★

The idea behind ‘Big Red Machine’ is nearly a decade old now. Somehow though this is only the first full-length release from the group. Originally beginning when Aaron Dessner of The National sent Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) a simple sketch of a song for a charity compilation album (Dark Was The Night). The project itself saw a resurgence in 2017 at Dessner’s HAVEN Festival in Denmark which Bon Iver was headlining. The pair reunited to perform two intimate sets full of rough outtakes of songs in progress for the project. Now, finally a year later those songs have come together fully formed to compose a debut album.

Big Red Machine, the collective is more than just a duet. Across the record, you will hear fellow artists and previous collaborators Phoebe Bridgers, Lisa Hannigan, Kate Stables, Richard Reed Perry and The Staves. All-encompassing the group and making multiple fleeting features, most notably on closer ‘Melt’.

It’s almost strange to listen to the collection of songs in record form, due to the organic and free-flowing nature of the tracks featured. ‘Deep Green’ is perhaps the best example of this, the skittish instrumental slowly builds as Justin Vernon gently speaks and lightly sings lines of obscure water based poetry. “So when they're standing by the River, you won't have to say, ‘You panicked on me.’”

What’s most immediate about the opening track though is something that occurs throughout the album, and that’s Justin Vernon’s more frequent use of his natural, unaltered stunning falsetto. If you’ve listened to his most recent Bon Iver record (the sublime ’22, A Million’), you would have noted how his vocals were constantly layered by digital distortion and auto-tune. This method, however, is not absent on the album, just better utilised. ‘Gratitude’ is the perfect showcase of this effect with Vernon's powerful screech of “I better not f**k this up”, his notable delivery of the line has stuck with me throughout the whole year since first witnessing it at HAVEN.

The first half of the record focuses more on these more experimental tracks with their trip-hop styled beats. ‘Lyla’ for example sees Justin Vernon rap over the top of some screeching distortion from Dessner as he showcases the literal squeals you can get from an electric guitar. The percussion underneath the track also hits unfamiliar time signatures and when an underlying piano melody takes over and is pushed centre-forward you’re not even surprised, you can just feel yourself going with the flow of the piece. Unfortunately some of these more erratic and experimental suites don’t work too well, the short and chaotic ‘Air Stryp’ comes to mind. As well as the meandering and lengthy ‘Omdb’ which feels repetitive and sluggish.

It's towards the latter half of the record where the real gems of the record sit. In which the album pulls off a modern twist on large ensemble choirs, all whilst blending in much more traditional sounding acoustics. These songs are grandiose and deeply heart-warming, none such more so than the Ragnar Kjartansson co-written ‘Hymnostic’, a gospel-infused combination of powerful organs and Vernon’s commanding vocals, to compare it to a religious sermon wouldn’t be an understatement especially with lines such as "I'll be singing for your health, I’ll be righteous you’ll see”. ‘People Lullaby’ is another track which is beautifully structured and composed, as a simple piano melody consistently builds along its length as Vernon leads a cacophony of synths and backing vocalists in unison.

For those fans of Vernon’s much earlier Bon Iver output, they’ll both be pleased and surprised to see an inclusion of a few upbeat, I’d even go as far as saying spritely tracks. ‘I Won’t Run From It’ is pure bliss to your eardrums. As a wood-like smokey acoustic fills the air, you’re transported back to that Wisconsin cabin from decades ago. You can just picture Vernon perched upon a log, the flames of a campfire flickering as he and his troupe sing this uplifting, homely tune. I can’t help but feel deeply soothed and at peace listening to the track. 

Final track ‘Melt’ feels like the combination of everything placed before it, the Big Red Machine coming together, all of its cogs and pieces in full function. The track is both urgent yet progressive at the same time as Vernon leads the entire PEOPLE ensemble in a chant of “Well, you are who you are”. Vernon shouts above the thundering and commanding shreds of Dessner and by the time you hear The Staves astounding harmonies the hairs are already standing firmly upright on your neck. 

To describe the sounds on this record I feel actually takes away from their impact, however, praise has to be given to Big Red Machine, never before have I heard such a mixture of genres and sounds come out of one singular project. Ultimatley, it’s a record which somehow mixes gospel, hip-hop and progressive rock. It’s not cohesive, it’s definitely a little chaotic but it’s certainly refreshing.