Big Red Machine Continue Prioritizing Vibes over Riffs on 'How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?'

BY Ian GormelyPublished Aug 25, 2021

Indie rock has had a falling out with the guitar riff. Over the last 15 years, what was once the organizing force behind any kind of guitar-based music has taken a back seat to mood and vibe. Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner didn't pioneer this shift, but, as members of two of the era's biggest and most culturally significant indie bands — Bon Iver and the National, respectively — they made little effort to make amends.

How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?, Vernon and Dessner's second collaboration as Big Red Machine, offers the most pop-friendly music of their respective aesthetics. It's an austere collection of songs that successfully incorporates Vernon's penchant for electronics, Dessner's guitar and piano textures, and big hooks sung by some big (and not-so-big) friends.

Big Red Machine has its roots in Dark Was the Night, the extremely prescient 2009 compilation Aaron and his brother Bryce curated for the Red Hot Organization. It took them a decade to produce a full album, 2018's Big Red Machine, and this follow-up arrives after Dessner's work on Taylor Swift's folklore and evermore albums, to which Vernon also contributed. (In a press release, Dessner credited Swift's encouragement to the album's, um, swift completion.)

Like its predecessor, How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last? comes with a list of heavy-hitting collaborators, most notably Swift herself, who duets with Vernon on "Birch" and takes the lead on "Renegade." Yet neither she nor anyone else contributing to the project — including Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold, Sharon Van Etten, Anaïs Mitchell and Ariel Engle of Broken Social Scene/La Force — ever threaten to overwhelm it. Each puts their own spin on their respective tracks, but it's hard to hear them as anything but part of Vernon and Dessner's artistic vision. With the exception of "The Ghost of Cincinnati," which is just Dessner and his guitar, it's difficult to separate one artist's contributions from another's — the central pair co-wrote the majority of the record's 15 tracks.

Dessner and Vernon could have recorded a record's worth of ambient soundscapes and probably enjoyed a decent bump in their streaming numbers from their affiliation with Swift, but, to their credit, they bring their A-game to every track. "Reese" and the Pecknold-sung "Phoenix" are immediate favourites, while "Hutch," on which Vernon is backed by Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan and My Brightest Diamond's Shara Nova, is a spiritual sequel to the soulful "Hymnostic" from Big Red Machine's debut. Mood and vibe are foundations, but they've taken care to make sure there are hooks and melodies to carry them.

While Big Red Machine lacked immediate standouts, it was intriguing for its ponderous excursions. Depending on your perspective, the sense of purpose and professionalism that marks How Long Do You Think This is Gonna Last? is as much a knock as it is an asset. The production, tempos and sense that everything is in its right place can, on lesser tracks (it's a couple songs too long) make the record feel staid, purpose-built for storied soft-seat theatres instead of dank clubs or booming arenas.
Nevertheless, this second Big Red Machine is a masterclass on the aesthetic that Vernon and Dessner have been honing across their careers. A generation of artists from across genres have adopted mood and vibe as their guiding principle, yet few wield it with their precision. As its title suggests, their moment in the sun could be fleeting — fittingly, they waste no time making the most of it.
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