“How long do you think it’s gonna last”; this question, or at least some variation of it, has been asked by millions upon millions of people every day over the last 18 months – ‘how long do you think this lockdown’s going to last?’, ‘how long am I going to feel like this?’ – and it’s one that’s at the centre of the new Big Red Machine (Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner) album. ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last’ is an album of unknowing and uncertainty; of questioning the future and the past, about trying to find you way through an increasingly uncertain world and trying to make sense of complicated and strained relationships.
The ‘It’ in the album’s title is never defined; fittingly, ‘How Long…’ is an oddly – and, at times, frustratingly – inscrutable album, filled with borderline nonsensical lines (“Now I’m looking at you / Through the hole in my sheet / And I still need this overtime”). Here, Vernon and Dessner ask you not to hone in on the meaning of individual songs and words, but to devote yourself fully to the ambiance and vibes of their dreamy sophomore collaborative effort.
Ironically then, ‘How Long’s’ best moments are it’s most vivid and detailed; the best song here – the Fleet Foxes feature ‘Phoenix’ comes into it’s own when Pecknold trades in vague scene-setting (“Out in the loading bay light / Watching the fog recede”) in favour of heart-on-the-sleeve reflections on the all-consuming power of love, and the terror that accompanies that (“you were making my heart change shape / It’s all that I could take”). Meanwhile, Taylor Swift-assist ‘Renegade’ – while not the most sonically interesting song here (taking heavy inspiration from Swift’s own ‘Long Story Short’) – has the solidest song-writing chops here; a moving tale of a relationship strained under the weight of a partner suffering from severe anxiety. It culminates in one quintessentially Swiftian line: “Is it insensitive for me to say, ‘Get your shit together so I can love you’?”.
Meanwhile, the best moment on ‘Mimi’ – a more-fruitful-than-expected collaboration with pop artist Ilsey – arrives with the line: “Would you ever light up with somebody like me?” Vernon and Dessner spend much of ‘How Long’ trying to conjure up atmosphere – to mixed results – and here they hit the nail on the head with just 9 words. Ilsey’s contribution here instantly injects a sense of warmth and companionship into ‘Mimi’; conjuring up an image of two people huddled together outside, lighting each other’s cigarettes, content for a moment to be together without even needing to exchange a solitary word to each other. Unfortunately, ‘Mimi’ is prevented from ascending fully to greatness because of poor mixing: on the chorus, Vernon’s backing vocals come to the fore, making both his and Ilsey’s contributions nearly inaudible, and now – 30 minutes into the album – the persistent reliance of drum machines and synthesisers is beginning to blunt the full potential of these songs.
If ‘How Long’ isn’t then a perfect album, it does have one major strength going for it; even in it’s weakest moments, it’s a wholly inviting experience; ‘How Long’ is chockablocked with features (Swift, Ilsey, Fleet Foxes, Sharon Van Etten, Anais Mitchell, among them) and none of the artists brought on feel out-of-place; their inclusions never feel like an after thought – each is given space to follow their own muse on these tracks. It’s what saves the LP’s most self-indulgent moments from becoming insufferable; Dessner and Vernon’s world always feel big enough to invite more people in; including you.
Best Tracks: ‘Latter Days’, ‘Phoenix’, ‘Hoping Then’, ‘Hutch’, ‘New Auburn’
Worst Tracks: ‘8:22 am’, ‘Brycie’, ‘Reese’