Aaron Dessner cuts a very low-profile figure, even by the standards of both bookish US alt-rockers and blue-chip pop collaborators, neither of whom require otherworldly charisma or an outrageous image. Put it this way: the New York Times recently ran a lengthy profile piece, lauding his achievements – his work on Taylor Swift’s multi-platinum, Grammy-winning 2020 album Folklore; its follow-up Evermore and her ongoing project to re-record her entire back catalogue; the National’s 20 year career, including their own Grammy for 2017’s Sleep Well Beast; his collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as Big Red Machine – and illustrated it with a photo not of Dessner, but his brother Bryce. An easy mistake to make – the Dessner brothers are twins – but nevertheless.
Dessner, though, seems happy with quiet anonymity. He had to be coaxed from the background to add three lead vocals to Big Red Machine’s second album, and would doubtless balk at the notion of this collective being a supergroup, although that’s precisely the label How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? would have earned them in a previous era. As well as Dessner and Vernon, the album variously features Swift, Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, Sharon Van Etten, This Is the Kit, Anaïs Mitchell – the singer-songwriter whose 2010 album Hadestown begat the multiple Tony-winning Broadway musical of the same name – Ben Howard, Lisa Hannigan, My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova, and Naeem Juwan, the rapper formerly known as Spank Rock.
But How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? speaks louder about Dessner’s unassuming nature than the alt-rock star power it assembles, and not merely because his voice somehow emerges as the most striking on the album: there’s something really haunting about hearing its rawness on Brycie or Magnolia, amid a battalion of more conventionally talented singers. How Long … is certainly less sketchy than the “structured experimentation” of Big Red Machine’s eponymous debut, but it’s still an album that gently beckons you in, rather than demands your attention.
Its sonic signatures are all low key. Simple, sad piano figures, with a particularly lovely example underpinning Reese; glitchy electronics, the smeared sound of Vernon singing through Auto-Tune, and unobtrusive shadings of brass and strings; acoustic guitar ballads that recall Elliott Smith at his most delicate, particularly on The Ghost of Cincinnati. The all-pervading atmosphere is mistily autumnal, the emotional tenor set fast between wistful nostalgia and melancholy regret; there’s a lot of stuff here about childhood memories and the slippery nature of mental health, exploring what Hoping Then calls “the edge of why I can’t sleep soundly”.
The guests feel as though they’re here in service to the overall mood, not to perform show-stopping star turns. Only Swift, to borrow the old X Factor cliche, makes the song her own – which has more to do with the fact that Renegade is the poppiest thing here and the presence of one of those very Taylor Swift-ish lyrics in which a feckless bloke is told to pull his finger out (“Is it insensitive for me to say get your shit together?”), than any desire on her part to turn on the razzle-dazzle.
You might expect an approach like this to yield hazily beautiful music, which it does – Reese is an exquisite bit of songwriting, the tumbling melody of the Robin Pecknold-assisted Phoenix is fantastic, as is 8:22am, which fades into soft focus before collecting itself and continuing. More surprising is how much of a punch it can pack. Hutch deals with the suicide of Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit, whose final album Dessner produced, assembling the various guests into a chorus of mourning: “How did you lose your way? And what can you tell me now?” Brycie, meanwhile, is an affecting meditation on both depression and the uncanny bond between twins: “You know my thoughts before I know … I’m sleeping sound when you’re in the room.”
The problem is that it occasionally sounds like Dessner and Vernon were simply enjoying themselves too much while assembling their friends’ work. The album lasts over an hour, and somehow feels even longer, perhaps because its tone never changes. There are tracks here that could have used an unsentimental edit – Easy to Sabotage has a nice groove to it, but it doesn’t warrant six minutes of your time – and tracks that you could have lost altogether. It’s not that Mimi or June’s a River are bad songs – they’re both pretty – it’s that they simply seem to elongate proceedings rather than add to them.
But then, a certain self-indulgence might be central to the whole concept of Big Red Machine. The album ends with New Auburn, a song you could take as questioning the wisdom of sharing something that’s evidently very personal: “Who are you to listen? Who are you to care? Just someone who knows me from anywhere.” It’s an intriguing point about the relationship between artist and audience, but the highlights of How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? make eavesdropping seem worthwhile.
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