Aaron Dessner, Justin Vernon Rev Up Big Red Machine With Help From Taylor Swift
Big Red Machine, the ever-morphing creative collaboration between the National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, will release its second album, “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?,” on Aug. 27 via the 37d03d label. The project comes on the heels of Dessner’s 2020 production and songwriting collaborations with Taylor Swift on her chart-topping “Folklore” and “Evermore” albums, the former of which won the album of the year Grammy in March.
Dessner and Swift haven’t stopped working together since, including on the first of Swift’s full-album re-records, “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” which came out in April. Extending this creative streak, Swift sings on two songs on the new Big Red Machine album, “Renegade” and “Birch.” Her legion of fans was sent into a tizzy over the weekend when social media teasers for “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?” appeared to include fleeting images of Swift writing out lyrics from a song by hand.
“The whole narrative of our friendship is very much captured in this project and in these songs,” Dessner tells Variety of the 15-track album, which was largely recorded at his Long Pond studio in upstate New York over the past two-plus years. “All along, Big Red Machine has been about community, collaboration and taking risks.”
Aside from Swift, “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?” boasts additional guest vocal and writing contributions from Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold (“Phoenix”), multiple Tony winner Anaïs Mitchell (first single “Latter Days,” a video for which is out now, “New Auburn”), Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova (“Hutch,” a tribute to late Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison) and Naeem (“Easy To Sabotage”), plus orchestrations by Dessner’s twin brother and National bandmate Bryce.
“For me to feel like something deserves to exist, it needs to feel emotion,” Dessner says of the music he wrote for the new album. “I try to give voice to some deeply felt feeling or sentiment, and that often conjures a scene for people to write to. I think that’s why I’ve had these amazing relationships with different songwriters.”
The album also marks Dessner’s first lead vocal performances on the songs “Magnolia,” “Brycie” and “The Ghost of Cincinnati.” He says of the latter, “‘The Ghost of Cincinnati’ wasn’t written as a song for Big Red Machine. That’s one that I played for Taylor, and she said, ‘This has to be on the record.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but it’s just me playing guitar by myself.’ She said, ‘No, it’s perfect. It’s exactly what this record should be.’”
Dessner says “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?,” the album cover for which features a preschool-era photo of himself, Bryce and their sister Jessica, touches on themes of childhood, family dynamics and mental health. It’s a realization that first became apparent to him when Mitchell sang her lyrics on “Latter Days.” “It was clear to her that the early sketch Justin and I made was about childhood, or loss of innocence and nostalgia for a time before you’ve grown into adulthood — before you’ve hurt people or lost people and made mistakes,” he says. “Anaïs defined the whole record when she sang that, as these same themes kept appearing again and again.”
A handful of the tracks were previously road-tested at Big Red Machine concerts around the world, including the frenetic, nearly six-minute “Easy To Sabotage” (this version of which combines live recordings from two separate New York shows) and the piano-led, Vernon-sung “Reese” (sample lyric: “What you shoulda been / What you woulda been / Well, it ain’t no problem now”). Says Dessner, “I was using this project to really try different things, and find the connection between my different impulses. I think I found it.”
As for the National, the band has rescheduled six pandemic-impacted European and U.K. shows for next summer, beginning June 3 at the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona. Additional 2022 performances in the United States across the Atlantic “will be announced in the coming months,” according to the group’s website. Meanwhile, Bon Iver will return to the road for the first time since early 2020 on a fall European tour that starts Oct. 24 in Leeds, England.
Big Red Machine takes its name from Dessner and Vernon’s first collaboration on the 2008 compilation “Dark Was the Night,” which was followed by the collective releasing its self-titled debut in 2018.
Here is the track list for “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?”:
“Latter Days” (feat. Anaïs Mitchell)
“Phoenix” (feat. Fleet Foxes and Anaïs Mitchell)
“Birch” (feat. Taylor Swift)
“Renegade” (feat. Taylor Swift)
“The Ghost of Cincinnati”
“Mimi” (feat. Ilsey)
“Easy To Sabotage” (feat. Naeem)
“Hutch” (feat. Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan and Shara Nova My Brightest Diamond)
“8:22am” (feat. La Force)
“June’s a River” (feat. Ben Howard and This Is The Kit)
“New Auburn” (feat. Anaïs Mitchell)
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