High profile artistic collaborations are often a sort of State of the Genre Address, if you will. The glorious rock star melodrama of Queen and Bowie’s “Under Pressure” is all too representative of art rock’s peak, and the self-celebration of Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Watch the Throne” is precisely the type of extravagant spectacle hip hop was heading towards in 2011. The 2010s has seen the rise of a new genre that is actually an amalgamation of several sub-genres, a festival-friendly blend of indie rock and folktronica most notably occupied by Mumford and Sons, Cage the Elephant and Sufjan Stevens. Big Red Machine, a collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron Dessner, seemed to be the perfect candidate to make this young genre’s State of the Genre Address. Instead, however, the two indie titans have put forth an album of pieces that are more freeform concepts than songs, providing some nice sounds and a few inspired moments but all in all leaving much to be desired from two of the greatest songwriters of the decade.
Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner are, indeed, indie titans. The former is the face of Bon Iver, which has its legendary roots in a lonely Wisconsin winter cabin and has grown into a highly influential folktronica band. Beyond Bon Iver, Vernon has dipped his feet into a variety of genres, lending his voice and creativity to folk trip hop savant James Blake and to hip hop giant Kanye on several occasions. Dessner, on the other hand, is a multi-instrumentalist and lead songwriter of the National, which has grown steadily in popularity for nearly twenty years and now headlines the biggest festivals in the world as the default indie rock act. In addition to producing Mumford and Sons’ latest record, Dessner curates the successful Boston Calling Music Festival, which attracts indie rock’s biggest names including Beck, My Morning Jacket and Modest Mouse. In short, Vernon and Dessner are the Kanye and Jay-Z of indie rock.
Despite this comparison, Big Red Machine is no “Watch the Throne.” Instead, the self-titled debut is a collection of static electronic beats that prevent Vernon and Dessner from flexing their songwriting muscles while providing surprisingly little room for experimentation. “Deep Green,” “Gratitude” and “Forest Green” offer similarly bland electronic beats and distorted guitar work, and they remain frustratingly monotone from beginning to end. Both artists’ talent for crafting a song with an engaging arc are sorely missed here. “Hymnostic” and “People Lullaby” feature repeating piano riffs nowhere near as impactful as the brooding melancholy of the National. “Air Stryp” is the one song that contains Dessner’s signature chamber-esque piano work, but it is surrounded by brash electronics and borderline-annoying lyrics — Justin Vernon is way better than the repeated “Drive by vroom.”
The highlights are found on “Lyla” and “OMDB.” The former displays an effective guitar solo, complex electronic layers and refreshingly organic female background singing. Unlike every other song on the record, “Lyla” actually matures throughout its runtime, culminating in a powerful strings climax and a beautifully raw piano outro. As a complete song, it’s by far the best on the album. “OMDB,” or “Over My Dead Body,” features a stunning blend of strings and electronics reminiscent of Bastille’s best work. Vernon is also tastefully autotuned, and this combined with the passion in his voice recalls his Kanye-sampled “Woods.” Even nicer is the soft acoustic guitar that enters halfway through, a breath of fresh air amidst an album of inorganic sounds.
Still, Vernon and Dessner’s best talents are missed. There is a lack of emphasis on songwriting despite this being their greatest skill, and besides “OMDB,” Vernon’s vocal work on Big Red Machine is among his worst. For having one of the most recognizable soft falsettos in music, Vernon’s high pitched singing here is obnoxiously loud and static. And while the duo’s experimentation with electronic beats is respectable, it doesn’t support any greater meaning or message. It’s a stark contrast from Bon Iver’s brilliant “22, A Million,” which uses the external chaos of electronics to convey the internal chaos of self-discovery.
Big Red Machine is by no means offensive. Its best moments, of which there are maybe two or three, blend electronic beats with acoustic sketches to create impactful emotion. In general it’s a fine choice to relax to or leave on in the background. But this is not the type of music we settle for from Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner, who have each created several transcendent albums. We’ll just have to wait a bit longer for indie rock’s next great collaboration.