My issues with the latest Big Red Machine album are not in any way insurmountable, so I’ll start with them before I get to the good stuff. How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? turns into an apt title – there is 15 or 20 minutes too much material here. When I say that, I don’t mean that the extra baggage stops it from being a very good album – just that the presence of those moments when the quality drops below its peaks are regular enough to stop this from being the absolute classic that it could have been. Frustratingly, the source of the bloat is obvious. Several of the big name features don’t live up to what surrounds them, meaning that they break the cohesion at often crucial moments. The Fleet Foxes track does little to inspire. Ben Howard turns up towards the end and acts exactly like Ben Howard, making things feel a little less dynamic for a while.There’s also a criminal waste of Kate Stables on this one.
And perhaps the most obvious sore thumb of all is the Taylor Swift featuring ‘Renegade’, which simply feels like something picked up from the folklore reject pile. It isn’t a bad song exactly, but it doesn’t fit. It also has the worst lyrics across the piece but I won’t go into that in too much detail here – all I’ll say to any young listeners is that if you end up in a relationship with someone with mental health struggles, don’t do what Taylor does in this song and tell them to ‘get your shit together so I can love you.’
With all that said, not all of the features fall flat. In fact, Taylor actually turns up on one of the album’s absolute standouts in the form of ‘Birch’. She plays second fiddle to Justin on this haunting and affecting ballad, but their harmonies are stunning and this is the most I have ever enjoyed a Taylor Swift vocal. But in a surprising and exciting turn, two of the very best songs on the LP are in partnership with artists I’d never heard of. ‘8.22 am’ with La Force is gorgeous and she takes the lead with aplomb. And the twitchy and anxiety-ridden ‘Easy To Sabotage’ is the song most likely to grab you on first listen, even if, like me, you’ve never heard of guest Naeem. This song also features Justin’s best recorded performance in years.
Anais Mitchell is another collaborator who mainly manages to come out of this looking very good, featuring on the equally integral and equally beautiful opening and closing songs. And for a final word on features, it would be impossible for me not mention ‘Hutch’. This track includes two artists I love in Sharon Van Etten and Lisa Hannigan, but it doesn’t really matter who appears. This is a song that Aaron Dessner wrote for his good friend Scott Hutchison, the late, great singer from Frightened Rabbit. As a huge fan of the man and his music, I can’t get through this song without getting emotional and these lyrics hit particularly hard: ‘So I can relate/With the notion of need to erase me/I know you weren’t faking or making it up/How did it get that bad?/Did you even hesitate?/You go out so far to escape/To try and replace your fate/So you say/”Thеre’s no need to contemplate/Likе we all end up dead anyway/ And there are no remedies ready”/But I swear there are many/But I swear there are many/And if I could I would pick you back up to the top.’ It’s a brave, touching, and beautiful tribute that ends up fitting in perfectly with the theme of connection that weaves in and out of the album.
And despite the many collaborators on show it is, in the end, the connection of Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon that ends up creating many of the most special moments on offer here. Whether it’s the piano of Aaron supporting the vocal of Justin on the ethereal ‘Reese’, or the support given to Aaron by Justin as he makes the rare step of taking the role of lead singer on standout songs such as ‘The Ghost Of Cincinatti’, ‘Magnolia’, and ‘Brycie’ (a song about the connection between him and his twin brother). These are all up there with the best tracks on the album and it is an absolute joy to see Aaron step out from the shadows in this way. But in the end, we all know that Justin has one of the best voices in the game and on ‘Hoping Then’ he firmly stakes his claim as the main attraction with the LP’s most ear melting chorus. And as someone who still views For Emma, Forever Ago as his best work it is great to see that, with the help of Dessner and a host of other collaborators, he has released a project in which he melds the folk stylings of his early work with the glitch and glamour that would get added along the way. In the end, despite a few drawbacks, the album is a triumph for its two main architects.
Words by Fran Slater
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