Review: Big Red Machine's 'How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?' - Rolling Stone
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Taylor Swift is Among the Guests on Big Red Machine’s ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of the National lead an experimentally-minded collaborative effort

big red machinebig red machine

Graham Tolbert*

They say it takes a village to raise a child, so, for their second album, the collaborative Big Red Machine (nominally National guitarist Aaron Dessner and Justin “Bon Iver” Vernon) decided to invite a birthday party’s worth of friends to pitch in for How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, a slow, mopey album all about childhood and its adult results: depression, anxiety, all that fun stuff.

Though the album is grounded in Dessner’s piano melodies, which blur the line between melancholia and nostalgia, and Vernon’s instantly recognizable keen, everyone from Taylor Swift, Anaïs Mitchell, and Fleet Foxes to Ilsey,  Naeem Juwan, and Sharon Van Etten helps out here. Dessner produced Swift’s indie-folk-leaning Folklore and Evermore, and Vernon pitched in on the latter, so Swift returns the favor with some vocals on the flickering “Birch,” and co-writes and takes the lead on the haunting “Renegade.” “Is it insensitive for me to say,” Swift sings, “get your shit together/So I can love you?” How many renegades have had to hear this? (Spoiler: Probably all of them.)

There are some genuinely experimental moments here: “Easy to Sabotage,” bits of which were recorded live, revs and stutters around a hook without ever completely resolving, but comes to life around Juwan’s distorted voice. These are the sounds of adult emotional struggle, thirtysomethings trying to make sense of the end of young adulthood, and to the realization that your troubles won’t go away just because you’re not hitting a bar every night.

But it’s Dessner who becomes the most intriguing vocal presence — we’ve simply never heard his voice in the lead before. On “The Ghost of Cincinnati,” Dessner sounds like an indie-rock Paul Simon, an acoustic guitar helping a guy exhausted by daily life and not completely sure what to do about it. He finds a little hope among the skittering rhythms of “Magnolia” (even if it is about a woman dealing with an abusive relationship). On “Brycie,” he pens a moving ode to his twin brother and fellow National songwriter Bryce Dessner: “I’m sleeping sound when you’re in the room/You help me stay above the ground.” “How long do you think it’s gonna last?” is a question anyone struggling with their own brain has had to answer. The album of the same name shows you the struggle is real and it’s everywhere.


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