When the definitive account of ’00s indie-rock is written, a special chapter should be reserved for Dark Was The Night, a 2009 charity compilation produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National that featured some of the decade’s most notable indie stars. Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, Dirty Projectors, Feist, Grizzly Bear, Iron & Wine, The Decemberists, Cat Power, Conor Oberst, Beirut, Yeasayer — with all that talent, Dark Was The Night was “We Are The World” in skinny jeans.
The double-album proved to be both a triumphant capper for a decade in which indie music moved from the underground to the mainstream of music festivals and corporate ad campaigns, as well as a melancholic pivot toward a new decade in which many of those acts slowly retreated from the pop world. Not that this was apparent at the time — in the immediate aftermath of Dark Was The Night, indie rock was awash in bearded guys seeking to fuse the rustic simplicity of Neil Young with the brainy, avant-classical stylings of Steve Reich. But in retrospect, Dark Was The Night was the beginning of an era’s end.
One of the most lasting remnants of that album’s legacy is the partnership forged by Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. In 2008, Dessner approached Vernon — at the time largely unknown outside of a small circle of blogs raving about For Emma, Forever Ago — with a few musical ideas in need of shaping into an actual song. Over time, this collaboration produced the track “Big Red Machine,” later released on Dark Was The Night. Subsequently, Dessner and Vernon remained close, working together on a series of music festivals and the recently launched PEOPLE streaming platform. Now they’ve come together for a new band, also called Big Red Machine.
Big Red Machine’s self-titled debut will no doubt be received as a side project by members of two of the most enduringly popular indie acts of the early 21st century. And the music doesn’t exactly discourage that point of view — to put it somewhat reductively, these songs sound a lot like the smoldering, slow-burn electro-folk of the last National album, 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, bolstered by the wild, backwoods hip-hop psychedelia that distinguished Bon Iver’s 2016 release 22, A Million. Vernon makes Dessner’s music sound weirder and woolier, and Dessner’s warm, inviting sonic textures pushes Vernon to some of his least affected vocal performances since For Emma.
But I suspect Dessner and Vernon would prefer that Big Red Machine not be perceived as an interesting diversion for fans of The National and Bon Iver. In interviews promoting PEOPLE, Dessner and Vernon have both expressed disdain for the trappings of the corporate music industry — specifically homogenous streaming platforms and generic, big-time music festivals — as well as the cult of personality that inevitably forms around artists, even in the indie world. Big Red Machine is the purest musical distillation yet of the duo’s “music first” idealism, boasting a long list of collaborators that will be familiar to anyone who has attended their annual Eaux Claires festival in northwest Wisconsin — most notably the album’s co-producer, Brad Cook of Megafaun and Vernon’s pre-Bon Iver band, DeYarmond Edison.
But, for better or worse, these guys can’t help sounding like themselves. After all, they are “stars,” reluctant or not, though they occasionally subvert your ingrained expectations. The murmuring “Gratitude” would normally be a backdrop for Matt Berninger’s hungover musings, but instead here’s Vernon yelping, “Well, I better not fuck this up!” (Vernon throughout Big Red Machine sticks mainly to his lower register, at times evoking Berninger’s husky croon.) Later, when Vernon hearkens to the Yeezus-isms of 22, A Million on “Lyla,” the aggression is cut with one of those discomforting, National-style string sections. In either case, appreciating Dessner and Vernon’s “other,” more famous bands is likely a prerequisite for caring about Big Red Machine.
Of course, the stature of indie music in general has diminished significantly since Dark Was The Night. Curiously — and perhaps wisely — neither The National nor Bon Iver has made any attempt to chase pop relevance. To the contrary, they have retrenched as a kind of alternative to pop’s otherwise accepted encroachment of the underground, in the process maintaining niche-y but still sizeable followings.
The National has even grown in stature in the ’10s, displaying a unique knack of changing just enough (while also staying the same just enough) to simultaneously excite and placate the indie-rock audience. As is The National’s custom, Sleep Well Beast took a while to fully ingratiate itself, as the album’s cagey songs about middle-aged marriage are pointedly not uplifting in the band’s usual house style. Nevertheless, The National has essentially toed the conventional indie rock-line compared with Vernon, who trolled those who started listening to Bon Iver back when he was an easy-listening NPR favorite being feted with Grammys with polarizing provocations like 22, A Million.
In that respect, Big Red Machine is a proverbial Rorschach test. From Dessner’s perspective, it represents a darker, more experimental id, distinguished by the sultry, disturbing punk-R&B of songs like “Air Stryp” and “OMDB.” For Vernon, this is actually his most accessible music in years, a relaxed showcase for him to display some of his most winning traits as a vocalist, whether it’s his tender romantic side (the Sade-esque “Forest Green”) or his avant-country balladeer persona (the gorgeous “I Won’t Run From It”).
Whereas Dark Was The Night spun off several public radio “hits” and fan favorites, Big Red Machine seems expressly designed to be heard as a sustained mood piece, like the second half of Sleep Well Beast with rougher, jammier edges. (A common touchstone for Dessner and Vernon is a shared love of the Grateful Dead, which informs some of their anti-stardom rhetoric.) And yet, while it is by no means a “star”-oriented album, the most fascinating aspect of Big Red Machine is observing how Dessner and Vernon’s sensibilities flow in and out of each other. Sometimes they lean on each other’s musical personalities, and other times they playfully upend them.
Big Red Machine is out on August 31 via PEOPLE / Jagjaguwar. Buy it here.