Aaron Dessner, The National’s multi-instrumentalist and chief composer, sent Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, an instrumental called “Big Red Machine” in 2008 before they had met in real life. He was hoping Vernon would complete the song for his upcoming charity album Dark Was The Night. With the title, Dessner was referencing the nickname of his once-great hometown baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds. But Vernon didn’t get the reference, and misinterpreted “Big Red Machine” as referring to the heart: Big in that it is crucial to life, Red in that it is soaked in blood, and Machine in that it is a pump driven by its own electrical impulses. Of course, in our social mythology we don’t see the heart as a mere machine – we see it as the rich, supernatural spring of our truest and deepest emotions. Aptly, 10 years after that first exchange, Dessner and Vernon have come together under the name Big Red Machine to create an album of cyborg soul that finds a way to draw emotion from the purely mechanistic, using electronic textures and techniques to enhance and mimic human emotions – their synths crackle and warble like faltering human voices, drum machines fizz and falter like jazz drummers, pitch-shifted samples cry out in longing and pain, autotune adds soul to Vernon’s meandering melodies. Though made by Vernon and Dessner in collaboration with PEOPLE (which in this instance entails members of Arcade Fire, This Is The Kit, The Staves, and Mouse on Mars, among others), the archetypal sound that these songs revolve around is more redolent of Burial than the artists’ folk and rock roots – dark, atmospheric, glitchy. Big Red Machine feels very much like a continuation of Vernon’s work on his last album, 22, A Million, impressionistic and steeped with emotional depth.
Opener ‘Deep Green’ starts with a drum machine loop that is shadowed by an echo so closely it serves to blur the location of the beat, adding an element of human error into the programmed performance – this is Vernon and Dessner putting the ghost back in the machine, and Big Red Machine’s fusion of human and mechanical, synthetic and organic being made clear from the very start. Vernon sets out his manifesto from the beginning too, his first line being “I will lay laid open”. What follows becomes almost a practical demonstration of a modern kind of masculinity – one that is open, responsible, parental, emotionally literate, yet also leaves plenty of space to talk about sports. And the structure of ‘Deep Green’ augurs accurately for the rest of the album too – it has a ruminative structure that dwells on one or two particular musical ideas rather than substantially developing or introducing real contrasts over time, though with a slight slow-burning build. While Dessner’s fingerprints are hard to find on this album, they’re probably most evident in these structural elements – 22, A Million’s songs, while aesthetically similar to those here, tended to roam freely through different spaces, whereas the tracks on The National’s last record, Sleep Well Beast, which are most similar to those here (‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, ‘Sleep Well Beast’, ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’) tend to be more concentrated and stationary. The impression here is of Bon Iver songs reined in and confined to a less excitable, National-style template. So repetitive are the instrumentals here that they are almost of a hip-hop construction.
Vernon is obsessed with symbology, and carries this through to his lyrics, often at the expense of his lines making proper sense. His Bon Iver debut For Emma, Forever Ago was dedicated not to a woman but to a period in his life which the name Emma symbolises; each track on the second record, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is symbolised by a particular place; each track on 22, A Million, is symbolised by a particular number. And Vernon uses the words in his lyrics symbolically too – often his utterances contain syntactic errors (“It’s a very slow thing to have glean” – ‘I Won’t Run From It’), made-up words (“Standing in a moment, plyment” – ‘Lyla’), and semantic non-sequiturs (“It’s the passing into ashes that’s the ground that you eat” – ‘Deep Green’), and this is because Vernon’s intended effect is often achieved not necessarily by integrating the meanings of successive words to reveal some greater meaning (as in most word-based art), but by each word-sound evoking some discrete feeling or image as if a standalone symbol. It is the impressionistic stream of feelings and images thus perceived, and the emotions they give rise to, that Vernon aims to communicate when what he wants to talk about is too ephemeral, too uncertain for traditional language.
Of course, this unorthodox approach can be dismissed as silly, self-indulgent, even pretentious. And the times when Vernon’s impressionism doesn’t give rise to artful image-streams do stick out sorely, like the awkward “We rose up outta G-League, with a Teepee gloss, where your tea leaves, boss?” on ‘Gratitude’. Plus Vernon obviates any perception that he might be an erudite for whom such a style is a natural fit by using slang, and excessive rhymes and alliterations on occasion. That said, to attack Vernon from either above or below in these ways is to miss the big picture, because there can be no doubt that his imagery regularly carries real power and sharp emotion, and moreover his writing comes from a place of authentic and sincere self-expression. When his lines don’t quite hit the spot, it is because he exposes too much of himself and his instincts rather than through self-regarding artistic conceits – though there’s no escaping that Vernon’s ratio of hits to misses is lower here than on any of his records as Bon Iver.
A lot of the time Vernon seems to be in the same post-breakup headspace of For Emma, Forever Ago, with the complex diversity of emotions it brings. His chorus of “I’m already off your reservation” in ‘Lyla’ seems to celebrate being free of his former lover’s sphere of influence, but ‘Hymnostic’ is more bitter – “I am not an apparition, but I’ll haunt you, you’ll see”. ‘Forest Green’ on the other hand is mournful and regretful – “I was gonna give you all a’ my time”, the melody descending as the life drains away from that abandoned idea, with the gently sliding guitar chords seeming to channel remorse but acceptance all by themselves. And all these emotions are sharpened by Vernon and Dessner’s use of synths and digital manipulation, the electronics which sit at the tortured emotional centres of these songs. ‘Hymnostic’ for instance has a quintessential hymnal feel, with plagal cadences, chorale-style singing and church organ – but when the track dies down to its most vulnerable and exposed moment, it’s the piano and drum machine that are left alone. On ‘Forest Green’, autotune is used to disfigure and disguise Vernon’s voice as he discloses so many unwanted truths and regrets.
On the PEOPLE streaming platform, the pay-what-you-want service for which Big Red Machine is the flagship offering, Vernon and Dessner write about the album: “We worked together without pressure or even a specific goal or deadline. The process was more important then [sic] the outcome.” It’s tempting to think this might explain the album’s flaws, because there’s nothing wrong with the talent or the ideas or the concept here – far from it – it’s that the execution lacks a little sharpness that might have come from a greater sense of pressure to create a great album rather than indulge in an enjoyable creative process with friends. Vernon’s lyrics could do with some greater quality control, and these arrangements could do with moving around a little more (take ‘I Won’t Run From It’, whose wet guitar lick is perfectly nice, recalling Bon Iver, Bon Iver stand-out ‘Holocene’, but begins to cloy after six minutes on a loop).
So ultimately it’s the songs that seem to have had the most thougth put into them that are the best. Foremost is ‘Lyla’, which is built on a slippery breakbeat in 7/4 time. This gives the impression that its rousing chorus arrives a beat early, powerfully enhancing its impact. Vernon is clever in the second chorus, singing in 4/4 time while the band remain in 7/4, and throwing in a periodic “Uh!” to pronounce the irresistible sense of syncopation this rhythmic trickery creates. The track dies down and rebuilds with ethereal female vocals, strings, and plaintive piano chords carrying a slight acciaccatura to engender an appropriate sense of human fallibility. ‘OMDB’ is a similar story, and brings the archetypal hip-hop flourish of a beat switch: half-way through it pivots from the familiar glitchy drum-led sound into a new chord sequence based on acoustic guitar. And closer ‘Melt’ feels like the biggest missed opportunity, with its “You are who you are!” verbiage and a build that never seems to find its destination. In fact, that is the one recurring flaw of this album which otherwise has many achievements – too often Vernon and Dessner don’t seem to have decided where they want these songs to go, meaning there are great raw materials throughout, but they’re not always shepherded into great songs.