This is the best album of 2021. So far. It’s going to take something amazing to surpass it.
I played cricket in teams from 1965 to 2002 and in that time I scored five centuries. I can remember lots of detail about each one of them – exactly how many I scored, who it was against, the year it took place. I have no recollection of the result of any of these five games. I’m much more interested in my own performance than the team result. Cricket is a team game played by individuals and that pretty much sums up my attitude to team work. It’s a clichéd question – would you rather score 100 and lose or score zero and win. The “correct” answer is the latter – “the team comes before the individual” – “there’s no i in team” – “I’m happy to contribute to the team effort” – etc etc but in reality, and especially at the club level that I played at, everyone would rather that they personally do well.
One of the great interviews I saw a few years ago was with the Head Coach of the England cricket team and he talked about engendering a spirit of togetherness which saw everyone in the team take pleasure at the success of others. This was demonstrated in the Second Test match this year when Dom Sibley, having failed miserably, looked genuinely happy that Joe Root scored a magnificent 180. Or maybe he was desperately trying to keep his place in the team. Too cynical? It is, however, an interesting concept – to take pleasure in someone else’s success. I think that’s possibly easily achieved as long as that person is not in competition with you. Parents can be genuinely pleased in the successes of their children. Unless you’re Bryan Cox in “Succession”.
What is teamwork anyway? Wikipedia states that “Teamwork is the collaborative effort of a group to achieve a common goal or to complete a task in the most effective and efficient way”. I always advocated working as a team when I was managing a department. In many ways, I worked in some fantastic teams. I know that I learned more from talking and listening to my colleagues talk about their lessons than I ever did from any expensive In-service Training and I hope that my colleagues felt the same way. Yet there were many times when sharing teaching ideas fell on deaf ears. I was just as culpable of ignoring other people’s suggestions as they were of using my methods. Teamwork is not about two people arguing and one person getting their way. Teamwork requires give and take. I suggest this, you modify it with that, I change it slightly, you come up with a solution. In that way everybody has input. The most successful team approach I have ever experienced took place last year, after I finished teaching, when there were three of us involved in preparing a presentation. There were lots of discussions over Zoom and over 20 iterations of the Powerpoint went forward and back until there was agreement on the final version. By the end, each of us felt invested in the final product. Unfortunately, that was rare in teaching. I fear that there were too many egos at stake and most people felt they knew best. I include myself in that and reflecting upon that, I have even more respect for Dom Sibley, if he really was invested so much in the success of his team that he was prepared to suppress his own ego for the benefit of the team.
Too much pride. An inflated ego. A distorted view of one’s self worth. Arrogance, vanity, conceit. Narcissism. All these personality traits prevent successful teamwork. How often am I guilty of these characteristics?
None of these characteristics apply to Justin Vernon or Aaron Dessner. They are the ultimate team players who seem willing to truly collaborate with other creative minds to produce work of stunning originality and beauty. “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last” is a triumph. It is a follow up to 2018’s eponymous album. When I wrote about “Big Red Machine” a month ago, I explained that in 2016, Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner and his twin brother, Bryce, founded an artistic collective named “PEOPLE” which aims to “establish an independent and nurturing space in which to make work (generally around music) that is collaborative, spontaneous and expressive in nature.” To further promote this initiative, they organised a festival in Berlin in 2016 at which an initial version of Big Red Machine played a set. They played at a number of similar events in 2017, mainly improvising new songs which they worked up for the album. Collaboration is at the heart of the project and the CD that came bursting through the door two days ago is a wonderfully diverse suite of songs which feature different lead singers, a range of musical styles and, above all, a strong emotional impact.
Anais Mitchell has recorded six studio albums but has not released an album of original material since 2012. “Young Man In America” was so brilliant, it would have been difficult to follow. Instead, she has worked on developing her 2010 album, “Hadestown” into a musical and forming a new group called Bonny Light Horsemen. “Hadestown” featured Justin Vernon singing the part of Orpheus in Anais Mitchell’s story of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. On this album, she reunites with Justin Vernon to sing the opening song, “Latter Days” and the closing song, “New Auburn“. She has a distinctive voice, simultaneously breathless and innocent. These two songs are quiet and reflective with wonderful piano played by Aaron Dessner.
“Phoenix” was co-written by Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, Anais Mitchell and Robin Pecknold, who is the lead singer of Fleet Foxes and he brings his tonal preferences to produce a beautiful song that is so easy on the ear, it could almost be called easy listening. Justin Vernon sings the chorus (but Anais Mitchell sings this part on “The Late Show”), and a four piece brass section create a piece of work that nobody could possibly fail to find uplifting. Name me one person who doesn’t find this uplifting!
“Birch” was co-written by Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), Aaron Dessner and Bryan Devendorf (both of The National). There is a long instrumental coda at the end of the song. Taylor Swift sings backing vocals but she takes lead vocals on the next song “Renegade” which could have appeared on either of her last two albums, “Folklore” or “evermore” which were both produced by Aaron Dessner.
Laurence Juber was a member of Wings between 1978 and 1981 and his daughter, Ilsey Juber goes by the stage name, Ilsey. She has co-written many successful songs recorded by Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Ellie Goulding and others. On the gloriously infectious “Mimi“, she shares lead vocals with Justin Vernon whose falsetto voice makes for a perfect harmony partner.
The best song on the album is “Easy To Sabotage”. It’s nearly six minutes long and has one of those propelling beats that always threatens to trip over itself. It was co-written by Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner and Naeem Juwan whose stage name is Spank Rock. He is a rap artist, who is well regarded for “mixing disparate hip hop and rap cultures“, according to Wikipedia. There’s a lot going on in this track. The intensity increases over the course of the song and the distorted vocals from both Naeem and Justin Vernon create an urgent and exciting sound. I’ve played it six times today.
Calling your group Big Red Machine makes it sound like the album is full of densely complicated music but the opposite is true. This music is interesting, moving and, above all, accessible. On the other hand, “Hoping Then” is weird. Quietly weird with a sound like a guitar being played with a bow supported by random piano notes and backing vocals from Lisa Hannigan. “Reese” is a classic Justin Vernon song. His vocals are distorted, there is some syncopated saxophone playing by Michael Lewis but the final result is a simple pop song with a memorable melody. “Hutch” has vocals by Justin Vernon, Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan and Shara Nova (from My Brightest Diamond). It’s much quieter after the drama of “Easy To Sabotage” and the female singers sing as a chorus rather than individually. “The Ghost Of Cincinnati” is sung by Aaron Dessner with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. The lead vocals for “8:22 am” are sung by Ariel Eagle, whose stage name is La Force. “Magnolia” is musically bright, sunny and lovely. By contrast, lyrically, the singer is reaching out to someone in serious trouble with suicidal thoughts after a brutal relationship has finished. Ben Howard (An English singer/songwriter) and Kate Stables (whose stage name is This Is The Kit) share vocals on the simple song “June’s A River” which has more sensitive piano playing by Aaron Dessner whose twin brother Bryce Dessner is the subject of “Brycie“.
16 different musicians collaborated to make Big Red Machine’s first album and that number has grown to 22 for this album. The album manages to maintain a common musicality whilst providing a varied listening experience. It’s a wonderful wonderful album and listening to it is going to provide me with hours of pleasure. Add some music to your day.
5 thoughts on “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last by Big Red Machine”
Thanks for this. The bits I’ve heard so far sound great.
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