Big Red Machine (Justin Vernon & Aaron Dessner)- EP review

Secret Meeting score: 81

by Dave Bertram

It’s been a decade since Justin Vernon joined Aaron Dessner and the rest of The National in curating the Red Hot-produced, 32-track charity album, Dark Was The Night. Unlike many benefit records before it, this didn’t enter the world as a collection of outtakes, poorly formed ideas and uninspired songwriting. It’s an assemblage of brilliant collaborations, few better than the ghostly, piano-driven Big Red Machine – twitchy and restless, but filled with the sadness that personifies Vernon’s melancholic falsetto.

Ten years of friendship, various festival curations and multiple collaborative performances later, and the pair are at it again, this time bringing a web of new material under the Big Red Machine banner to support the launch of PEOPLE – a new online vehicle for watching and listening born to encourage artist collaboration and musical discovery, away from the barriers and limitations that govern the music industry.

In an interview with Elizabeth Alker on BBC6 Music, Dessner explained how the concept came to fruition following a musical community event the pair helped to curate at the Funkhaus, Berlin, back in 2016, where a hundred artists from across the globe came together to collaborate. “We wanted to create a platform that breaks away from what the music industry would normally enable. It’s an artist-designed, artist-led platform for artists to create and publish their ideas and provide them with a garden for those collaborative seeds to grow.”

Of the new tracks he’s written with Vernon to launch the community, Dessner explained that “you’re often caught in the shadow of what you work in. It’s refreshing to look at something outside of the structure of what has dominated your career. This is about discovery, having a new experience and bringing new ideas together.”

This sentiment of collaboration and experimentation is clear from the outset on the four-track EP the pair have released. The characteristic sounds of both protagonists clash in equal measure to produce four beautifully crafted tracks, which blend Vernon’s soaring vocals and oblique lyrics with a minimalistic patchwork of rhythmic drum loops, melodic guitar lines and haunting piano figures.

The dotted drum machine opening sequence of first track Forest Green feels like the cousin of 33 “GOD”, before the mix of strings and synths sit back to provide a subtle and spacious backdrop for Dessner’s lead, melodic bass line. Vernon sticks closely to his method of simple, cut-up lyrics that are frequently heartbreaking, as he confides – “I was gonna give you more time, but I can’t” – softening and deepening that falsetto and applying the vocoder cleverly to emphasise the song’s dynamic. As the bass-line stands alone to draw the track to conclusion, you can’t help but notice the similarity with the Trouble Will Find Me cut, This Is The Last Time.

Lyla sees Vernon take his exploration of R&B and rap influences a step further than on previous output, rhyming over piano and drum looped verses before guiding a gospel choir through a repetitive mantra, “I’m already off your reservation, I already on your reservation”, before Dessner bursts in with an intense, scratchy guitar line.

Gratitude continues with the personal troubles and self-doubt that torments throughout, as Vernon delivers, “I better not fuck this up / We better not fuck this up”, before stand-out and final track, Hymnostic, crashes 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. Here, Vernon disposes with the vocoder and concludes the record with 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 backdrop of crashing drums and warm harmonies.

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. In August, the pair will be taking part in another week-long collaboration event at the Funkhaus, with 156 artists already confirmed to take part. It will open to the public for the final two days – I suggest you go.

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