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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Big Red Machine’s ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’ is profound and entertaining

Big Red Machine perform at Primavera Sound in Barcelona, Spain, in 2019.  (Courtesy)
By Julien A. Luebbers For The Spokesman-Review

Big Red Machine are redefining the “super” part of the term “supergroup.” The fundamentals of BRM are the same as for all supergroups: a couple of top-tier, all-star musicians joining forces at the height of their careers to form a completely new project.

This particular group is composed of Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron Dessner. Dessner may sound familiar from his recent recognition for producing Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” and “Evermore.”

But they push the supergroup genre by roping in an incredible (and incredibly diverse) cast of other artists into their latest project, “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?” The complete artist list is a little absurd.

In addition to Vernon and Dessner, the album features Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, Anaïs Mitchell, Taylor Swift, Ben Howard, This Is the Kit, Naeem, Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova.

BRM has always been about experimenting with the boundaries of music, about the melding of genres and sounds. Having so many creatives on the album helps to challenge this goal, forcing the project to balance coherence and the individual strengths and ideas of each artist.

Having walked that tightrope, the result is stunning. Each artist is placed in the context of Dessner’s songwriting but given the space to be themselves. From the opening track, “Latter Days,” you can hear the melding and mixing of each contributor’s style with Dessner and Vernon’s.

“Latter Days” is an interesting opening track choice. It seems to wind down with its slightly sleepy pace, as an album’s closer might. But the vocals contributed by Mitchell and her reminiscences on innocence lost somehow work just as well as the album’s thesis. The images of life’s ineluctable changes are beautiful and deeply real, setting the scene for what’s to come.

Like “Latter Days,” much of the album is characterized by incredible delicacy, a softness that Dessner and Vernon have shown an aptitude for over the years. But both are also technical innovators and enjoy complex, heady writing.

They strike a balance here with songs that sound simple and coherent. But listen closely and you’ll find that there is immense detail in the conveying of this unified impression: countless interwoven melodies and parts, puzzle pieces, which, when fit together, form the image of the track, while only under close scrutiny do the outlines of the pieces show.

“Birch” is the clearest example, the beautiful and emotional piano line (exactly what Dessner is famous for in his work with the National) playing over a choppy programmed drumbeat while Vernon and Swift sing the vocals.

But the album also contains great aesthetic range; such a description as the one above could not apply to every track. “Phoenix” (featuring Fleet Foxes and Mitchell) comes off very differently, a more tromping piano part with peppy, stepping drums.

On the chorus, Vernon sings “I was trying to find my way / I was thinking my mind was made / But you were making my heart change shape.” The song exudes optimism and change. Dessner’s lead vocal debut, “The Ghost of Cincinnati,” is more akin to Elliott Smith’s “Angeles” than anything else on the album, the finger-picked guitar coming down like rain on a thin roof.

And the elegiac “Hutch” – a tribute to the late Scott Hutchison, lead singer of Frightened Rabbit and a friend of Dessner’s – draws on the palette of a church choir but pushes that sound with stuttering drums and Vernon’s rich falsetto. It’s an album richly populated by innovative and curious artistic moves but backed at its core by inspirational and introspective writing.

The best music has the capacity to create a deep need where one did not exist previously and to become the only thing that can fulfill that need. “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?” does just that. It wasn’t necessary until I heard it, but now this is my every day.

A testament to the power of collaboration, it’s no wonder that bringing together two great musical minds results in an entertaining and profound album. Stream now anywhere you stream music.

Julien A. Luebbers can be reached at