How MIDI Can Paint Emotion: A Review of Big Red Machine’s Self-Titled

Mason Stoutamire
4 min readJun 10, 2021
Aaron Dessner (left) and Justin Vernon (right). Photo by Graham Tolbert.

As a fan of Bon Iver and The National, I was really excited to stumble upon Big Red Machine’s 2018 self-titled album at the record store. Comprised of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (lead vocals and guitar) and Aaron Dessner of The National (keyboardist and producer) in 2018, Big Red Machine is a thoughtful conversation between the two musicians. Aesthetically, Vernon’s work with electronic-folk music on 22, A Million meets Dessner’s production on Sleep Well Beast (2017). Consistent with these signature sounds, heartbreak invites sound beyond the acoustic guitar and dry vocals. Some tracks on the album look to discordant noise samples to scatter musical expectations — I was hesitant to expect anything close to my favorite performances from both of these acts but Big Red Machine sounds more intimate and experimental than I could’ve imagined. Not only do the lyrics prompt the listener to reflect on one’s connection to the world, but the 10 respective soundscapes are fresh and generative. Being the first experimental-electronic-folk album that I’ve heard, the blend is impressive.

From the first track, “Deep Green”, Dessner’s muted drum machine reminds me of The National’s “I’ll Still Destroy You” with the soul of Vernon’s raw, unfiltered vocals. Thematically, the track opens up to describe a shifting relationship across time, a common subject for both of their main acts. Where the track trails from their past work, however, is in the subtle expressions of computer glitches behind the chorus — the duo introduces themselves as more eclectic than expectations permit. The track concludes with Dessner’s curious fluctuations in MIDI and Vernon’s sparse vocals: “Cause now I’m a devotee / I’m a devotee / I will lay laid open”

Exploring this trope further in “Hymnostic”, Big Red Machine is aware of their combined strengths. Led by the piano, the ballad precedes the epiphanic quality of Bon Iver’s “i, i”. There isn’t much clutter on this track. Along with the piano, it mostly fills the space with Vernon’s layered vocals to consider the painful afterimage of a separated counterpart. At its climax, the pensive emotion fuels Vernon’s desperation in 2016-Bon Iver-fashion: “Why don’t you come back on the runner? / Won’t you come right backside?”. Far from minimal, the track takes the audience to church with key sounds of Vernon and Dessner.

However, there are moments on the album where the duo chooses to stay subtle and direct. “Forest Green” is my favorite track on the album, in its minimalism. The lyrics are repetitive but the evolution of the idea produces a rich, beautiful sound that’s bound to last in the subconscious. Led by a single guitar riff, the track laments the past and its absence in the present reality. With his production, Aaron Dessner’s guitar-work in Big Red Machine creates a steady soundscape behind Vernon’s lyrics; the song doesn’t make many inflections, it’s consistent and deliberate. This repetition builds the lyrics in a way that makes six minutes feel way too short. Suddenly, each repeated line feels more real than the last: “I was gonna go and get you more time / More time / More time” Similarly, “People Lullaby” features a piano run that lasts for nearly three minutes before returning to its final verse. In this track, the repeating piano functions to establish meaning of gratitude for companionship at its best: “Well then you two came along / With your safety and poise / To bring me a new color”

Considering the wholeness of each track on the album, Big Red Machine chooses to take their own liberties in melody and songwriting. In their work leading up to this album, these creative decisions sounded plausible but unexplored, until the release of Big Red Machine. “Lyla” introduces kicks that nearly exceed The National’s driving kicks in “Squalor Victoria”. Moreover, Vernon delivers the lyrics in a choppy style that resembles loosely-spoken word. A fleeting drone paces back and forth, Dessner decorates each line with minor guitar licks and glitches. Most of the space is left for Vernon to experiment in vocal inflection; he even chooses to ration his breath over a series of wordless fills, similar to a practice-technique that only stayed in the record for its congruence with the kicks: “Scratch that! / Abandoned winnebago sack / Ah / Having in a motel track / Ah / feathers had a real good track / Ah” The track escalates with the electric guitar blending into the noise with frizzles — the pacing synth and piano are all that’s left.

“Air Stryp” follows shortly after as the noisiest performance on the album. Emerging from the initial burst of 16-bit noise is a bright verse accompanied by a piano: “The all lip fountain / And the air strip” The track takes a series of dramatic turns, reminding me of Ludwig Göransson’s “TRUCKS IN PLACE” for the Christopher Nolan film, Tenet (2020). Unlike any other track, “Air Stryp” takes another discordant turn after its initial device, leaving a fading sample to dissolve like a spinning-top.

To consider this album in a single genre is difficult, Big Red Machine complicates confinement. Merging the sophisticated, IDM-style production of Aaron Dessner with Justin Vernon’s heart-wrenching vocals creates a modern exploration of genre. Where Bon Iver and The National generate new possibilities, Big Red Machine capitalizes on these blends and adds novelty to what honesty can sound like. Big Red Machine is a somber project that decides to provide the intricate details of feeling via MIDI channels; it’s among the warmest albums I’ve discovered this year.

Listen to the album here.

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Mason Stoutamire

UCI Literary Journalism Student, Big Brother, and Music Fan