Even With Taylor Swift, Aaron Dessner Is The Star Of Big Red Machine

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We all tried to make the most of being stuck in quarantine during Covid. But it’s unlikely that you made more of it than Aaron Dessner. Pre-pandemic, he was known as the co-founder of The National, a self-effacing guitarist and composer who seemed content to remain in the background. Now, 17 months later, he is pop’s least likely hitmaker in the wake of his Grammy-winning collaborations with Taylor Swift on the 2020 sister albums, Folklore and Evermore. Introspective and analytical by nature, he’s now a bonafide stand-alone star.

According to a recent New York Times profile, the 45-year-old Dessner doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with his newfound status as a person that lots of other people — some of them presumably on the same level of fame as Swift — want to work with. “I like the idea that I could count my collaborators on one or two hands, to stay with this family feeling,” he told the Times. “So I’m not rushing out to work with a million people. It’s not really my personality.”

The “family feeling” that Dessner referenced didn’t necessarily pertain to The National, but rather to Big Red Machine, the side project he founded with frequent collaborator Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. A self-described “laboratory for experimentation,” the collective grew out of the festivals that Dessner and Vernon have spearheaded in the past decade, including Eaux Claires in Eau Claire, Wis. and the People festival in Berlin. The animating idea of these festivals is to gather friendly musicians in a collegial, forgiving environment and encourage them to work together in creating art that goes to unexpected places. On their self-titled 2018 debut, the minds behind Big Red Machine sought to carry this idea over to a record.

What’s interesting about the second Big Red Machine album out today, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, is how unexperimental it sounds. Whereas the first Big Red Machine record consisted of esoteric sketches that felt like excerpts from long, heady jam sessions, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? includes some of the most approachable and pop-oriented material that Dessner or Vernon have ever produced. This can partly be attributed, of course, to the involvement of Swift, who along with suggesting the album title appears on the album’s most immediate track, “Renegades.” But the rest of the record is similarly melodic and warm, evincing little of the electro-indie dissonance of the recent output by The National and Bon Iver. If you’re a Swiftie who hasn’t yet dipped into Dessner’s back catalogue, this is actually a very accessible entry point.

This is very much Dessner’s album, by the way, in which Vernon relegates himself to a supporting role. “I wanted to continue to support Aaron and honestly challenge him, frankly, to get out in front more,” Vernon told the Times. “There are little bits and pieces that I show up and do on the record, and I obviously wrote some words and sang some tunes, but really, this is Aaron’s record.”

As perhaps the ultimate ur-Aaron Dessner text, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? functions as a kind of mixtape in which singers come and go — including Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, Sharon Van Etten, Naeem, and Anais Mitchell — but the instrumental beds showcasing the Svengali’s musical signatures remain constant. This includes pianos — lots and lots of pianos! — playing circular, repetitious licks over skittering electronic beats that gradually blossom from lonely wallows to grand swells of emotion.

That was the formula of Folklore and Evermore, as well as the last two National albums, Sleep Well Beast and I Am Easy To Find. But it reaches an apotheosis on How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, in which Dessner for the first time on record steps forward as a frontman. He sings in a shy, Elliott Smith-style croon on confessional songs such as “Brycie,” a touching ode to his twin brother Bryce about how he lifted him out of a deep teenaged depression, set to music that evokes The National’s “I Need My Girl.” (Only in this case it’s “I Need My Bro.”) Elsewhere Dessner makes his presence felt via the carefully considered soundscapes that appear on affecting songs such as “Hutch” and “June’s A River,” the latter of which spotlights the fine singer-songwriter Ben Howard, whose 2021 LP Collections From The Whiteout was produced by Dessner.

While the original idea of Big Red Machine was to give the creators an excuse to breakout of their usual molds, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? seems like the opposite of that. It doesn’t redefine what Dessner does so much as reiterate just how distinct and pervasive his current musical mode is. While he’s about a half-dozen big-ticket pop smashes away from being as overexposed as Jack Antonoff, there is the possibility that this highly productive period for Dessner has run its course. At 65 minutes, the album feels about 15 to 20 minutes too long, with a surfeit of tasteful, samey-sounding piano ballads. While Dessner’s musical acumen can’t be questioned, I did occasionally yearn for a singer with a big personality for him to play off of — whether that’s Matt Berninger or Taylor Swift — who might have also injected more humor and insight into the record.

As good as many of these songs are — how nice is it to hear Justin Vernon sing over piano chords on tunes like the jazzy, Steely Dan-esque “Reese”? — How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? seems more like a capstone to an era than a new beginning. I have no doubt that Dessner is already pondering his next move. (Here’s an idea: Get the five guys from The National in a room and knock out a rock record in two weeks. Bring it back to Alligator for the heads!) But it seems like it’s time to move on.

How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is out now via Jagjaguwar/37d03d. Get it here.