‘Big Red Machine’ squanders its indie cred

September 14, 2018

The new, self-titled album by Big Red Machine was built by a community. It’s a counterpoint to the idea of the “auteur,” the individual who single-handedly wills their creative vision into existence. But most art isn’t really a solo project. Art is usually the culmination of multiple processes, contributions from diverse sets of people, consisting of wide-ranging ideas and experiences.

Big Red Machine comes from a larger collective of artists: Its creators, Aaron Dessner (of the band the National), and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), developed it as part of PEOPLE, a new online music platform the two founded that prioritizes artist collaboration. Think TIDAL but not terrible.

PEOPLE’s goal is to connect artists and have the collective call the shots. Unlike TIDAL, you can listen without paying anything. It’s an interesting idea that promises to be better than the incredibly unequal setup prevalent in the recording industry today, but I’m not sure that this first album under the PEOPLE label is as confidence-inspiring as Dessner and Vernon would have liked.

Named after an era-defining lineup of the Cleveland Reds baseball team, Big Red Machine brings a diverse sonic palette. Primarily sample and guitar-based, producer Aaron Dessner builds out songs in unexpected directions. The song “Air Stryp” starts out with a buzzing baseline—I thought I’d accidentally queued up Run the Jewels at first—which then evolves into something much more lovely and subdued, becoming aurally more evocative of Sufjan Stevens’ “Age of Adz.” “What’s a girl to do / In a world like you?” Justin Vernon sings.

Big Red Machine feels like a half-step from the music both members’ bands have been making in the last two years. The minimal, glitchy beat of “Gratitude,” evokes “Empire Line,” from The National’s 2017 album “Sleep Well Beast,” and Justin Vernon’s auto-tuned voice mixed with avant electronica sounds like a natural extension of Bon Iver’s “22, A Million.”

Dessner develops moody, bubbling, minimalist indie rock that complements Vernon’s lyrics and vocals. The production is impeccable, a definite point in the album’s favor. But I can’t wholeheartedly recommend “Big Red Machine” because of its nebulous, sometimes plodding nature. I don’t think it quite knows what it’s trying to do. In this album, the parts are better than their sum.

In some ways, “Big Red Machine” is like two of my favorite bands combining into a supergroup. Vernon and Dessner have achieved their goal of collective music—credited contributors include Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire, Phoebe Bridgers, Kate Stables of This is the Kit—but the side effects of wide-range collaboration are a lack of focus and cohesion.

There are good songs on this album.“Well we better not fuck this up!” Vernon sings in the refrain to “Gratitude,” a simple, subdued earworm that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for a week. I love the piano’s chord progression on “Air Stryp,” how it centers the song around buzzing digital ephemera—and a subdued blend of sounds that build to a choir at the end of “OMDB,” but it’s not enough.

“Hymonstic” is a slow march with a piano riff that gets old quite fast and sounds like an outtake from an old Bon Iver album. The same with “People Lullaby,” except that it drags on for even longer. “Melt” has Justin Vernon repeating the lyric “Well, you are who you are” thirty-five times in a row.  These songs highlight the flaws in the album. Ill-defined, sprawling, meandering, it’s hard to know exactly what Big Red Machine is trying to say or do. When the album works, and there are examples of it working, the songs are worthy additions to the alternative rock canon. “Gratitude,” “Air Stryp,” and “Forest Green” are all excellent. But as an album, it’s not a failure or a masterpiece but a favorable, unfocused first album from two indie all-stars.

I think a good comparison—and also a terrible one—would be with “The Lion King 1 ½.” It’s like we’re getting “Sleep Well Beast.5” or “22, A Million Expanded and Revised.” Sonically, not a lot has changed in the last two years, and, though I love those records, this one isn’t essential listening.

I wonder if this doesn’t bode well for Dessner and Vernon’s PEOPLE project. It prompts the question of whether or not there can be too much collaboration, and how art-by-collective affects a work’s message. An album should say something, but I’m having a hard time figuring out what Dessner and Vernon are wanting to say with Big Red Machine.

The origin of the music project comes from a 2009 record compilation called “Dark Was the Night,” released in support of Red Hot, a non-profit dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS. Vernon and Dessner’s song, also called “Big Red Machine,” is a spare track, with a haunting piano and subdued strings in support, held together by Vernon’s powerful, melancholy lyrics.

That song is of a different caliber than this album. It has a reserved, analogue beauty to its stripped-down production, and its lyrics are poetic and evocative. I’m a little disappointed by Big Red Machine’s debut. I think its creators could have done better, but I’m hopeful that PEOPLE as a platform can generate better work. They have the ideas—they just need to better put them into practice.

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