Secret Meeting score: 86
by Dave Bertram
Big Red Machine is founded in community. Ten years in the making, moulded through festival curations, collaborative performances and the launch of PEOPLE – a new online platform and live festival borne to encourage artist collaboration and musical discovery, away from the meddling hands of the music industry – Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner have formalised their joint works on a ten-track journey of contrasting influences and experimentation.
Earlier this year, Dessner spoke to BBC 6 Music about breaking through the barriers of sounds and writing styles by working with others. “You’re often caught in the shadow of what you work in”, he explained. “It’s refreshing to look at something outside of the structure of what has dominated your career. This (record) is about discovery, having a new experience and bringing new ideas together.”
And this sentiment is etched into every nook and cranny of the record. The characteristic sounds of both Vernon and Dessner clash in equal measure, plus they are joined by more than two dozen contributors from the minimalistic PEOPLE music platform who simmer in the musical backdrop – Lisa Hannigan, Phoebe Bridgers, This Is the Kit’s Kate Stables and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry all feature.
The minimalistic, quirky patchwork of rhythmic drums and digital sounds that personify opening tracks Deep Green and Gratitude sit close to Vernon’s last album under the Bon Iver moniker, 22, A Million. Lyla sees him take his exploration of R&B and rap influences a step further, rhyming over an off-kilter afro beat and intense, scratchy guitar lines. He delivers the occasional ‘oh’ and repetitive mantra, “I’m already off your reservation, I already on your reservation”, through the vehicle of gospel choir before the song tails away through Dessner’s soft piano and string lines. This paradox continues on Air Stryp, where frantic drums and synths sit atop considered, melancholic keys.
Those busy arrangements, built on the clashes of soft rock and R&B, draw their raw power from the openness of Vernon’s soaring vocals and oblique lyrics that frequently pull on the heartstrings. On Forest Green – the cousin of 33 “GOD” – his softening and deepening falsetto calls – “I was gonna give you more time, but I can’t” – backed by a melodic bass line that draws clear parallels with National tracks Trouble Will Find Me and This Is The Last Time.
Hymnostic deals with its open subject by casting away the digital masks through a sound and delivery more akin to the Vernon’s self-titled sophomore record. Crashing in with a wonderfully simple, heart string-tugging chord progression that evokes everything good about Born To Beg from The National’s last record, Sleep Well Beast, he disposes with the vocoder and delivers a falsetto born from a desperate yearning and urgency, rasping – “Winter costs you peace of mind / Winter cost your valentine / Why won’t you come back on the runner / Won’t you come right backside”, against a bed of crashing percussion and warm harmonies.
People Lullaby continues in this vein, pairing a looped piano line, soaring falsetto and close backing harmonies, where I Won’t Run From It provides a positive injection of more straightforward folk and delivers a more buoyant and characteristically odd lyric that grapples with dealing with grief. Choral backing lines sit next to an all-conquering brass section as he sings – “Too livid, too scared / Too loving, too closed / Now look at you know.” Uplifting closer, Melt, echoes this sentiment wonderfully as Dessner crashes through repetitive guitar chords – “Well I know it’s a struggle /It’s some kind of debacle/ You fancy your feast/ But you dreading your speech/ Just follow your feet!”
Whether through artist preference or industry heavy hand, music is infrequently built on collaboration in the way it’s presented here. But here lies a wonderful example of how breaking down structure and smashing different influences and thought processes together can create something endearing and progressive. There’s a clear continuity from the pair’s last records as Bon Iver and The National, but it’s clear they’ve both found a kindred spirit under Big Red Machine which feels far more than just a side project.