Justin Vernon and Brooklyn indie rock legends The National are no strangers to supergroups and side projects. Clogs, Volcano Choir, EL VY, and DeYarmond Edison have all released solid records, and we can now add Big Red Machine to that list. The project of Vernon and The National guitarist Aaron Dessner (along with a host of other contributors), Big Red Machine’s self-titled debut album is a distillation of the unique career trajectories of these two artists, and the end result is on the whole pretty damn impressive. Like any of the above bands? You’ll find plenty to sink your teeth into here.
Kicking off the album with a jittery, Thom Yorke-esque electronic undercurrent, “Deep Green” features a healthy dose of Vernon’s increasingly esoteric lyricism (which reached peak weird in 22, A Million) alongside Dessner’s start-stop guitar work. It’s a nice set up to a collaboration that showcases these musicians’ unique and oddly complimentary talents throughout. Subsequent track “Gratitude” is perhaps the composition most obviously influenced by these musicians’ main projects, with guitar work that feels pulled directly from Boxer and an auto-tuned vocal delivery from Vernon that would fit snugly on Bon Iver’s latest release. While this all may sound a bit too familiar, it’s frankly part of what makes this record such an enjoyable experience. There are splices of The National and Bon Iver peppered all through the record, but these portions of the music never feel lazy or phoned in. Instead, they serve as further solidification of the indelible imprints each artist has left on the groups they perform and write with. On Big Red Machine, we’re surrounded by sonic elements that show Dessner and Vernon melding their previously established sounds comfortably and confidently while pushing themselves into uncharted territory, which allows the album feel both familiar and foreign all at once. “Lyla”, “Air Stryp”, and “OMDB” each exemplify this songwriting style impeccably well, presenting compositions that balance the old and new in memorable and effective ways. It’s a treat to listen to, and not only makes me hungry for new Bon Iver and The National records, but for more material from this project as well.
In all, Big Red Machine have released a record that can be enjoyed by fans of any of these artists’ other projects, and deserves to sit among the most unique and bold entries in either of their discographies. It’s out now on Jagjaguwar and is available for streaming and purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page. Get on it.