Chances are, you haven’t heard of Big Red Machine yet, a two-man super group consisting of The National’s Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver. This promising team-up didn’t happen for the prospect of recognition or commercial success, but for a reason much simpler: the joy of creating music and to grow a sense of community.
Despite releasing their debut self-titled album on August 31, the duo already published four songs (Deep Green, Forest Green, Hymnostic and Gratitude) three months ago in June – just to let people know what they were working on. The songs were published on a streaming platform called PEOPLE, which happens to be the duo’s brainchild, too.
What distinguishes the platform from others is the fact that it doesn’t work in favour of labels or the industry, but rather to give creative space to all musicians who want to be part of it – all obstacles and barriers removed, with a nurturing environment and a sense of community. In a way, Big Red Machine promotes the possibilities of this community of musicians.
The record opens with “Deep Green“, a track balanced between a slow but stirring drum beat and guitar chords, which get the listener excited to hear the chorus, the highlight of the song: Vernon sings about starting a family and raising children: “Not amounting to your mother or your father / It’s the memory of future gets three”, and “so when you teach ‘em better teach ‘em to share”.
With its energetic nature and a driving sound right from the start, “Lyla” stands out against a majority of the pondering tracks. The complex and layered drum beats don’t give much space for lyrics, so Vernon complements the instrumental with a number of ellipses and Kanye-like “ah” adlibs scattered in between. The entire construction of the song reminds of the latest additions of West’s oeuvre, until the drum beat evolves into a gentle outro led by strings and keyboard.
Throughout the course of the album, it becomes clear that it is a stylistic mixture of Bon Iver’s earlier records like For Emma, Forever Ago and his latest 22, a Million, and The National’s thoughtful and heavy trademark sound.
What all songs have in common are mostly complex structures that feature layered production, drum computers, rhythm changes and Vernon’s electronically altered voice. In general, the tracks are more about creating moods and overall arrangements, rather than focusing on meaningful lyrics.
“I Won’t Run From It” contributes to the stylistic range of the record, because it features a more traditional folk sound that reminds a lot of the early Bon Iver. The song features a banjo, horns that are gradually rising in the background and Justin Vernon’s vocals without any autotune distortion. The nature of the song leaves space for Vernon’s natural falsetto voice to spread.
The song is focused more on the lyrics compared to the rest of the record, Vernon sings: “With the feeling that I am fishing in a harbour now / too clever, too kind / too patterned to hide / Now, look at that smile”, that could essentially mean anything, but given the way he sings it, seem to be love-related.
The last track of the album is called “Melt“. It relies completely on electric guitars and drums, a sound that is closer to what Aaron Dessner usually produces for The National.
Vernon contributes around 30 iterations of the phrase “Well, you are who you are” that give the guitars space to unfold. He also sings “You fancy your feast / but you’re dreading your beast / just follow your feet”, basically telling the listener to be themselves and allows for a fit ending of the record.
The idea for Big Red Machine originated in 2008, when Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon collaborated on a song of the exact same name that was included on a compilation for the Red Hot AIDS benefit series. At that time, they hadn’t even met each other; however, the song was the foundation of a friendship that, ten years later would lead to creating an entire album together.
On the website of the PEOPLE platform, Dessner revealed that he doesn’t want to call the project an album, as it is supposed to be part of a dynamic process of community and collaboration, which reflects the idea behind the PEOPLE collective. He also emphasized that there was no pressure or deadline on creating a record, but that the process of creating music was as important to him as the outcome. It reminded him of why he fell in love with making music in the first place.
The record is by no means a concept album, neither one that exhibits a distinct sound. The song structures are complex and layered, yet Dessner and Vernon managed to produce a warm and open record with a surprisingly accessible sound.
It is difficult to make sense of the project as a cohesive album, but it is way more than just a bunch of randomly compiled songs: Big Red Machine is a harmonic record that showcases a range of remarkable musicians, who wanted to prove that it is possible to create original and progressive music beyond the industry’s limits. All based on values like community and accessibility, but without any pressure to fit in or create music on demand.
You can purchase Big Red Machine’s self-titled debut album on iTunes here and listen to it on Spotify below.
Written by Lukas Haertel