Review: Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner create Big Red Machine

Review: Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner create Big Red Machine
This cover image released by PEOPLE/Jagjaguwar shows the self-titled album for Beg Red Machine. (PEOPLE/Jagjaguwar via AP)

Big Red Machine, “Big Red Machine” (PEOPLE/Jagjaguwar)

Big Red Machine is a long-in-the-making project led by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner. Its roots go back to an eponymous song the pair created for “Dark Is the Night,” a momentous 2009 compilation in the Red Hot series benefiting the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Besides the usual physical formats, the album is being released on PEOPLE, a new digital platform co-founded by the two musicians with a few others and which was part of the record’s creative process, with contributions from a varied roster including Lisa Hannigan, The Staves, Brad Cook, JT Bates and several of Dessner’s bandmates.

Keeping all that in mind, it’s difficult to consider the music separately from its source and the predominant sounds on “Big Red Machine” reflect its collective nature. Some of the tunes have over a dozen musicians and there are layers upon layers of vocals and electronic and acoustic sounds throughout. Sometimes they enhance the listening pleasure, like on “Lyla,” ”Gratitude” and “Hymnostic,” while sometimes they’re more of a distraction (“Air Stryp,” ”Melt”).

Since he’s the lead singer and lyricist — some of the words border on stream of consciousness, others are more straightforward — Vernon’s presence is the most immediate. Some of the album’s best moments, however, including the meditative “Forest Green” and the comparatively conventional “I Won’t Run From It,” clearly have Dessner’s soundprints all over them.

According to its creators, PEOPLE is meant to give musicians and artists an easily accessible environment to exhibit works in progress as well as final products, react and add to each other’s efforts and spawn collaborations.

The 10 songs on “Big Red Machine” are loaded with experimentation, some of it exquisite, some excessive. As the first tangible result of the project, it’s an auspicious start.