The Lowdown: The first formal collaboration by The National’s Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver took place in 2009, when the two worked together on a track for the excellent and revelatory Dark Was the Night compilation, also titled “Big Red Machine”. The song evoked an air of lush introspection, conjuring all the mysteries concealed in the chambers of the human heart. The album that the sleek original track was expanded into, unfortunately, carries frequent moments of staleness and fussiness. Whereas the song was sealed-off and perfect in its bareness and brevity, the album frequently creates a crowded and claustrophobic sense of too many cooks in the kitchen.
The Good: For longtime Bon Iver or National fans, Big Red Machine isn’t a total wash. “I Won’t Run from It”, the album’s best and cleanest track, is a full-bodied composition about finding the joy in difficulty and struggle. “Forest Green” is a dreamy slow-burner, featuring Vernon’s signature Auto-Tuned vocals and some guitar noodling worthy of “Beth/Rest”, the polarizing ’80s-slow-jam-influenced track from Bon Iver’s self-titled album. It’s hard not to wish that more of the album doesn’t follow the lead of these two songs in particular.
The Bad: Clunky time signatures and unnecessary flourishes abound, as do some of the most head-scratching lyrics of Vernon’s career as a songwriter. Rather than working in the more insular manner of the 2009 track, Vernon and Dessner expanded their circle of collaborators for this project, creating an overall effect that is stuffed and busy.
The Verdict: Pervading Big Red Machine is a sense of restlessness, as though Dessner and Vernon are eager to break new ground after everything they’ve already accomplished in their respective careers. There are moments when it feels admirable in its scope and ambition, but ultimately, the pure intentions get lost in the noise.
Essential Tracks: “I Won’t Run from It” and “Forest Green”