Follow your feet: a review of “Big Red Machine”

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Rating: 8/10

There was a lot of hype for the project, and now it’s here. The eponymous “Big Red Machine” has dropped, debuting on August 31st on various streaming networks, including the group’s very own platform.

Over ten years in the making, Big Red Machine draws its beginnings back to the initial interactions between Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver fame, and Aaron Dessner, part of the band The National with his twin brother Bryce. A few sound clips sent back and forth slowly accumulated the feeling of a distinct musical vision, over the years coalescing into a new band, Big Red Machine, and its much-anticipated first release.

Part of the culmination of the album is also the formation of the artist collective known as PEOPLE, composed of the aforementioned collaborators and a loose assortment of other creatives that play in and around the scene. This includes people like Francis Starlite (of Francis and the Lights), Erlend Oye (of the Swedish folk group Kings of Convenience), up and comers like Phoebe Bridges and even renowned producers like Phil Spector. In fact, you can access a list of “people” involved in PEOPLE right on their website.

The PEOPLE collective has also swallowed up their festival activities, which had already been going for a few years at the Funkhaus in Berlin, but has now been re-branded with the PEOPLE moniker. As in years before, Vernon and his cohorts have circumvented typical festival expectations in order to cultivate a creative process of experimentation and collaboration. Just last month they hosted their first gathering officially under the PEOPLE umbrella, which was described in this way beforehand:

“There will be no line up. You won’t know who you’re going to see until the artists come on stage. We experience the process, beyond names and expectations. There will always be music. After 8pm we all come together on the main stage for the PEOPLE Mixtapes bringing together the highlights of the week”

If you’re interested in the creative ideas behind PEOPLE, check out my previous article about the new collective and the emergence of Big Red Machine here.

But now to the music. The most striking thing about the album is the sonic landscape it invites you into. If you’ve listened to “22, A Million” by Bon Iver and The National’s recent album “Sleep Well Beast,” then the musical palette might seem familiar to you. Thick layers of ambience and electronic beats interact with splashes of R&B and occasional musings of folk and gospel elements. It’s altogether unique in its composition, while still feeling like an extension of sounds that Vernon and Dessner have been refining over the last five years.

On top of this cultivated landscape the vocals often feel like freestyled word association, like a mad libs session where sound inspires a word, whether it makes sense to the general public or not. On “Deep Green” Vernon riffs on lines like “And we met up like a ski team / 10 ft out …. / With a cane man’s clout,” or makes jagged observations: “We met up at the high line / Great park.”

The album sounds like Vernon riffing over a movie soundtrack at times, at others like a dreamtime soliloquy or a monologue to yourself when it’s 4am and you’re not sure if you’re asleep or awake or somewhere in between. It’s both immediate and unfiltered while also being highly contextual and slightly out of reach, like some new slang that only the inner circle of PEOPLE know.

Though Vernon’s lyrics have always floated somewhere in the stratosphere of understanding, it’s his voice, and the way he styles it with production gloss, that has been the draw for many fans. Most of that has been dropped on “Big Red Machine.” Though there are occasional uses of autotune, the majority of Vernon’s vocals are clearly discernible. What you hear is his full, gruff, expressive voice, lending the album a rawness rarely seen on his previous work.

There are beautiful moments here, like on “People’s Lullaby,” where Dessner and Vernon use a piano arpeggio and a return to falsetto voice to craft a high-reaching and communal ballad that’s full of heart. “Has me all borderline – reerased” Vernon sings, soon joined by a choir of voices. I don’t have to understand what they’re saying to feel the emotion of it. But this has always been Vernon’s power, to push emotional resonance past language through an obtuse and abstract use of it.

The end of the album culminates in an anthemic trance of sorts, as Vernon, soon joined by a chorus of voices, chants “Well, you are who you are” over and over again. It’s one of the clearest statements on the album, and seemingly a message from the PEOPLE collective – Follow your passions, interact, create things, and most importantly, “Just follow your feet!”

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