Making music, more often than not, requires more than one set of hands. But for Aaron Dessner, in particular, collaboration isn’t just necessary for pulling notes off the page—it’s a life force.
Known as a primary songwriter in The National and, more recently, for his work with Taylor Swift on her beloved sister albums folklore and evermore (the former of which won the Grammy for Album of the Year), Dessner is consistently drawn to making music in a group setting, whether that’s experimenting in the basement alongside his twin brother and National bandmate Bryce while growing up in Ohio, or writing for the rock stalwarts on one of their eight studio albums.
Similarly, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon can be frequently found creating alongside fellow heavyweights, be that at his Eaux Claires Music Festival in Wisconsin or appearing on a Kanye West track. So it wasn’t a complete shock when Vernon and Dessner released 2018’s Big Red Machine on the label they created with Bryce, 37d03d (which has since played host to albums like Bonny Light Horseman by the supergroup of the same name featuring Anaïs Mitchell, Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson and The National collaborator Josh Kaufman). They began working on the follow-up to Big Red Machine’s debut at Dessner’s Long Pond studio in 2019, and the resulting album carries the same collaborative spirit and brings even more familiar faces along for the ride. How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is a complex celebration of collaboration, and it’s a continuation of Dessner and Vernon’s ever-growing musical community.
And it’s that fellowship of artists from every corner of the music world who make the Big Red Machine project so alluring. Mitchell is the first guest star to surface on HLDYTIGL’s poignant album opener “Latter Days,” which imagines the end of times. But the resounding single “Phoenix,” featuring Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, looks to a more hopeful future. It is the very sound of winter snow thawing. Pecknold sounds so natural alongside Vernon and Mitchell’s warm tones as they sing, “I was trying to find my way / I was thinking my mind was made / But you were making my heart change shape / It’s all that I could take.”
Another single, “Renegade,” which would have fit right in on folkore or evermore, was written by and features Swift. Vernon’s background vocals in the round recall soapy country ballads like Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” and Swift’s delivery of lines like “Is it really your anxiety that stops you from giving me everything, or do you just not want to?” are representative of the power she and Dessner can harness together. Swift also pops up again alongside Vernon on the restless “Birch,” which chronicles a man’s search for peace.
The tear-jerker “Hutch,” which was written for the late Scott Hutchison—who was the lead singer of Frightened Rabbit and Dessner’s friend—features the great Sharon Van Etten, as well as Lisa Hannigan and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova, all moonlighting as a gospel choir. And later, on the meditative “June’s a River,” indie-folk songsmith Ben Howard and This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables, who has also sung in The National’s touring band, join forces for a tale of disintegration. “8:22am” is equally riveting, featuring Vernon and Ariel Engle (who performs solo as La Force and with the group Broken Social Scene) on vocals. The beautiful “Hoping Then” also features Hannigan, but the real attraction of the song is Dessner’s sequencing. Every pluck of the guitar and whine of the violin entwine so perfectly: It’s a reminder that Dessner is so often acting as conductor. Maybe he’s not playing every instrument or singing every note, but he’s there in the foreground, orchestrating the whole show.
We already knew Dessner is a master producer and lyricist. But HLDYTIGL is most affecting when he sings, too. Dessner takes the mic for the first time on folk-rock number “The Ghost of Cincinnati,” an exposition of his innermost anxieties about the past, particularly his childhood spent in the Ohio metropolis, and again on its companion track “Magnolia,” where he asks, over and over, this quartet of questions: “Did you forget? Did you grieve yet? Did you regret? Did you heal yet?”
The most personal, though, may just be the plucky ode to his brother, endearingly called “Brycie,” whom Dessner says supported him through seasons of depression as a teenager. “You know my thoughts before I know,” Dessner sings. “Lift me up when I’m down / You watched my back when we were young.” Encouraged by Swift and Vernon, Dessner has finally stepped into the spotlight as a vocalist, and that decision pays off in a big way, particularly in regards to the emotional immediacy of Big Red Machine’s music.
While it’s mostly a pleasure to behold, the second Big Red Machine project does feel a little repetitive at times, mostly because it’s top-heavy. In “Easy to Sabotage,” for instance, the off-kilter time signatures (a Dessner specialty) eventually all melt together while Vernon sings in glitchy AutoTune a la the Bon Iver record 22, A Million. The remaining hypnotic six songs that follow, while all enjoyable, could probably have been trimmed down to three. Losing yourself in a record isn’t a bad thing, but this one just makes it a little difficult to find your way back.
Despite that mid-tracklist lull, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’s existence is welcome. It’s a celebration of togetherness and hope in spite of a dark past, and at this exact moment in the year 2021, desolation is winning the battle against hope. So I’ll happily take the teamwork and optimism that Dessner and Vernon are eagerly sharing. The sheer breadth of talent on this record, from rock stars and pop stars to folk masters and Broadway composers, is a testament to Dessner and Vernon’s magnetism. Artists want to work with them, and it’s apparent on both Big Red Machine albums that those who choose to do so enjoy it, and therefore make music we enjoy, too. Aaron Dessner’s career has transformed into a never-ending musical dinner party, and we’re all invited.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.