‘Big Red Machine’ a non-starter
Matthew Kellenberg | Wednesday, September 12, 2018
Last June, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner launched the online publishing platform PEOPLE. The goals of the platform: promote collaboration, remove the obstacles of music publication and provide listeners with more content from their favorite artists. PEOPLE already has 160 artists onboard, ranging from indie darlings to classically trained violinists, and the PEOPLE website features a free, 24-hour online radio for new releases. Most notable among these releases is the self-titled debut from Big Red Machine, Vernon and the Dessners’ own musical venture.
“Big Red Machine” begins with “Deep Green” and “Gratitude,” which together introduce the album’s music palette. Neither “Deep Green” nor “Gratitude” is so ambitious as to have its own narrative arc; rather, the two songs together form a prolonged buildup to the true high points of the record.
Next on the record is “Lyla,” a slow-burner with an almost danceable beat and an ever-changing sound. Embracing the spontaneity of the PEOPLE project by incorporating the distinctive styles of each artist on the track, “Lyla” demonstrates everything Big Red Machine might be.
The fourth track on the album, “Air Stryp,” hearkens back to Justin Vernon’s days collaborating on “Yeezus” with Kanye West. The song is abrasive, invigorating too, but mostly just abrasive. Similarly, “OMDB,” a lyrics-focused track, contains lines so ambiguous as to spurn interpretation. “Over my dead body / to the mop / to the mop. / Over my dead body / through the clock.” The lines might make more sense in context — if there was any.
Awakening from the dreamless slumber that is “People’s Lullaby,” listeners finally reach the album’s strongest and penultimate track, “I Won’t Run From It.” The song begins with Aaron Dessner’s folksy, uplifting fingerpicking. Next, Justin Vernon joins with his classic folk storytelling: “Now look at that road / Look at that climb / When it’s throwing in a nickel you’ll get out a dime.” Finally, an array of strings, background vocals, and drum machines takes “I Won’t Run From It” from the idyllic to the sublime.
“Melt” is like any plainspoken closing track, except for that its central line — “Well, you are who you are” — bears no relation to any of the topics explored in “Big Red Machine.” The song is a failed imitation of “All You Need Is Love,” and it is a disappointing reminder of the album’s artistic lack of direction.
One would be amiss to judge “Big Red Machine” in the context of Bon Iver and the National’s greater discographies. The aim behind the PEOPLE project is to release experimental, not polished, music; one cannot chastise artists for failing at something they do not aim to accomplish. Yet, there must be a standard by which to say “Big Red Machine,” with all its hiccups and histrionics, is simply not an impressive record. If the PEOPLE project is to gain traction, it will take more than a half-dreamed album release from a few well-loved artists.
Artist: Big Red Machine
Album: “Big Red Machine”
Favorite Tracks: “I Won’t Run From It,” “Lyla”
If you like: Bon Iver, Francis and the Lights, Sufjan Stevens
Shamrocks: 3 out of 5