On Aug. 27, Big Red Machine — the collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner — released their second studio album titled How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? The album was highly anticipated considering the lead single was “Renegade,” which featured none other than Taylor Swift. Swift, Vernon and Dessner have worked together in the past, most notably on Swift’s Grammy-winning record folklore. “Renegade” made it to radio play and fans absolutely loved the single, in part because the song was heavily focused on Swift. Nonetheless, fans were eager to see what the duo had in store for the rest of the album without the genre-defying star.
Big Red Machine released their first self-titled album back in 2018. While both artists are highly respected and established in the music industry, the album itself was not a show-stopper. Much of the music sounded like something either artist would release on their own, which was not what people were expecting from a duo of such caliber. This year, they began teasing fans with a new release, chock-full of features from big names and some of their longtime collaborators.
Where Big Red Machine’s first album focused heavily on the talents of Vernon and Dessner alone, How Long is filled to the brim with impressive features. On some of these songs, like the aforementioned “Renegade” or “Phoenix” with Fleet Foxes, the featured artists are given prominent roles in the song, while Dessner and Vernor are mostly found in the background vocals and instrumentals. In other songs, like “Birch” or “Hutch,” featured artists like Swift, Sharon Van Etten and Lisa Hannigan fade into the background and Dessner and Vernon take the lead. This balance makes for an interesting album that keeps listeners on their toes.
It’s no surprise that two individuals with as much talent as Dessner and Vernon were able to make an album that highlights not only their own attributes but makes their features shine as well. Big Red Machine does what both of its parts do best, using Dessner’s signature piano instrumentals in combination with Vernon’s airy vocals to create an album designed for easy listening. Though some songs, like “Easy to Sabotage” with its messy instrumentals and vocals, stray away from the duo’s typical sound, arguably the best songs on the album are the ones that stick to what the two artists know best. When it doesn’t try too hard to be experimental, the album benefits greatly. There isn’t much “new” from this album, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
Dessner and Vernon are making music that they know their listeners will enjoy, and that doesn’t hurt the quality of the music they release in the slightest. While How Long may not be an album that listeners put on repeat for years to come, it’s a solid release filled with some gems and memorable collaborations with notable artists.
Daily Arts Writer Gigi Ciulla can be reached at email@example.com.