switched on pop

The ‘Weird, Swampy Alchemy’ Behind Big Red Machine’s New Album

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

On August 27, Big Red Machine, the joint musical project of the National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, returned with a new album titled How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? Listen to its lyrics and you’ll quickly notice that it’s filled with a litany of big, thorny uncertainties. Dessner told us that, for him, music-making is a primary tool for processing difficult emotions: “a way to kind of ask questions and feel better ultimately just by giving voice to [them].”

You’ve most definitely heard Dessner’s production work elsewhere, as on Taylor Swift’s pandemic albums, evermore and folklore. The new Big Red Machine release celebrates the fruits of creative partnership and the importance of family and community. At least, that’s what we took from our conversation with Dessner. “A lot of my favorite music, usually there’s something elusive about it, in that whatever is elusive is coming from this weird cocktail of different people’s input,” he said. “There’s just this weird, swampy alchemy, and you can’t easily put your finger on why it’s so moving.”

Given the list of features on this album — everyone from Swift to Sharon Van Etten to Anaïs Mitchell to Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold — it made sense when Dessner told us how much creative inspiration he draws from the kinetic energy generated by multiple musical brains working as one. “I’m such a born collaborator,” he said. “I’m definitely interested in this exchange where you make something and you send it out into the ether and then it comes back slightly changed or radically changed. Then you work on it and send it again. I like this handoff, this communal approach to music-making.” It’s also an exercise in risk-taking and extreme vulnerability, he explained:

Being collaborative is risky on some level because any time you share an idea with someone, you’re sticking your neck out, and there’s a moment of judgment that happens when someone listens to something you’ve made and gives you feedback. But that moment when you take that step and jump into cold water — that is, I think, the most important thing. And it’s hard to do, even if you’ve done it a million times like I have. Part of being an artist is not being paralyzed by insecurity or self-doubt and allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

The musical collectivity undergirding How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is a testament to the power of community in a period of intense isolation.

The ‘Weird, Swampy Alchemy’ of Big Red Machine’s New Album