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Big Red Machine - Big Red Machine Music Album Reviews

The debut collaboration of Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner is gorgeous and ponderous, a document of a creative process that feels a bit like watching someone get purposefully lost.

Big Red Machine want you to think of their music not as a definitive product but as an indefinite process. Maybe not in a sudden Kanye “Ima fix wolves” kind of way, but more like a document of a process. When an album is framed this way, you can perhaps experience something new outside of a consumer framework, free of the burden of marketing and metrics, and rewarding on its own pure terms. This is the punk theory offered by PEOPLE, the recently launched artist collective founded by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame, the National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner, and entrepreneurs Tom and Nadine Michelberger. PEOPLE functions as a digital space for artists to experiment and create without ads or pitiless streaming margins. It is indie music’s small war against ethical consumption in late capitalism.

PEOPLE’s flagship release is Big Red Machine, an album that began 10 years ago when Aaron sent Vernon a slight instrumental sketch. Vernon donated his words and falsetto, and soon it became “Big Red Machine,” which appeared on the era-defining 2009 charity compilation Dark Was the Night. Almost a decade later, the two reconvened in Vernon’s April Base studio in Wisconsin to rediscover their collaborative spirit in earnest. The floating bog of an album they created there is both gorgeous and ponderous, using the same puddingy, R&B textures found on Bon Iver’s 2016 landmark art-pop album 22, A Million and the National’s still-great Sleep Well Beast, from last year. It feels a bit like watching someone get purposefully lost just because, well, they’ve never really been lost before, have they.

And if Vernon and Dessner are really trying to make PEOPLE “as much about the process of making work and showing all that openly, as the final outcome,” then perhaps what the sprawling and often inscrutable Big Red Machine does best is—through the medium by which it is delivered and the circumstances that birthed it—interrogate what we expect from music in the streaming era. It’s hard to hold onto anything concrete, musically or lyrically, here. The album’s 10 songs are much more thematic, sensory, and impressionistic. Their compositions are all suspension and ellipses, Vernon’s lyrics are mostly Sativa-fuelled poetry overlaid with the kind of yearning that comes from years of writing songs about doomed lovers. It is in between states, a musical and economic parasomnia that feels incomplete by the standard definition of an album but fully formed by PEOPLE’s definition.

Perhaps it’s unfair to levy criticisms about its lack of destination when getting lost for 45 minutes is kind of the point. All these songs creep in from and trickle back out into the night without much of an explanation. “Gratitude” builds out from a simple low-bit drum sample and a stately Dessner guitar riff to include a chorus of live drums, omnichord, piano, and Vernon singing about a litany of images whose relation to one another seems all but undiscoverable: a big bean field, Indians in the graveyard, lovers who were quarterbacks. On the opener “Deep Green,” the Vernon Mad Libs continue: “We met up like a ski team”—whose meetup habits are historically unremarkable to my knowledge—and then, “Well we rose up outta G-League/In a Teepee gloss/Where your tea leaves, boss?” The leaps from one image to another are so large it becomes impossible to glean any emotional connection; you’re simply hanging on to Vernon’s voice for dear life.

That voice—one of the most expressive baritones in indie music—is the showpiece throughout. And unlike 22, A Million, it is mostly naked and unprocessed, which brings you that much closer to his wintery impressionism. There’s an organic, old-school Bon Iver feel to the piano-led “Hymnostic,” a last-call, 6/8 ballad that runs on a rather traditional set chord changes. It isn’t until the instrumental break that a cacophony of distorted voices and buzzing synths take over the song for a bit, giving it a more acidic, unsettling tone. It’s one of many moments on the album when the production and arrangement pull focus and expand the borders of a song. Dessner and Vernon could place a distorted guitar sound off in the distance for you to squint at, then a woman vocalizing appears behind you, until a string section is summoned quickly in the foreground. As plodding as these songs can feel, they are composed in multiple dimensions and with a wide field of vision.

I’m reminded of the National’s 2015 project A Lot of Sorrow, a six-hour experimental live show they worked on with Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson (who, incidentally, also co-wrote “Hymnostic”). It was a process, too: drilling down into one song, pulling it apart in an endurance test to uncover the very essence of a band. But the work of Big Red Machine feels inessential by design. In fact, it calls into question what is essential in the modern economy of music: emotionally, politically, physically. An album intended to be distributed outside the major streaming ecosystem (though it is available on Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal) and through a transparently collaborative process is just going to sound different and behave differently as a piece of art. Trying to meet it on its level is frustrating, but for fans of Bon Iver and the National, it will sound like a fascinating appendix to their catalogs.

In considering this idea of process outside economy, I keep coming back to a phrase Vernon sings over and over on the lovely “People Lullaby”: “Has me all borderline re-erased.” It’s a line I could burrow into for hours, in all its colloquial recursiveness, in all its dreamy inconsequence. What is this feeling that causes him to feel this way? The line doesn’t drill into the blood and body of the songwriters, it simply wonders the space and then takes its leave. It’s not the feeling of something tangible, sellable, describable, permanent—but it’s a good feeling, fleeting, and if strung together over a period of time, maybe feelings like that can give music a new kind of value.

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