Back in 2008, The National’s Aaron Dessner was assembling material for a charity compilation named ‘Dark Was The Night’. He sent the sketch of a song called ‘Big Red Machine’ to Bon Iver, aka Justin Vernon, who turned the track into what Dessner has called an emotional “beating heart”: a song where understanding our own emotions and those of others was central. The two formed a songwriting duo, and their second album, ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’ turns once again to those emotive roots thematically, while taking a braver direction musically.
Many of the songs on the album dig into the past – much like their work with Taylor Swift on last year’s ‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’. Indeed, Swift is one of the many guests on this follow-up to their self-titled 2018 debut, assisting on the lush ‘Birch’ and pensive ‘Renegade’ (she even came up with the album’s title, having threaded its themes together).
Dessner was working with Swift on both of those records alongside this album, so it’s perhaps no wonder that both songs feel close to their lockdown sessions. ‘Birch’ is stripped-back and piano-driven, while ‘Renegade’ is more optimistic, with Swift front-and-centre. The closes thing here to ‘Folklore’s’ lighter and more pop-oriented moments, it’s one of the album’s standouts tracks.
Another comes via the beautiful ‘Hutch’, a gut-wrenching tribute to late Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison. Sung by Vernon and featuring haunting harmonies from Sharon Van Etten, indie-folkster Lisa Hannigan and multi-instrumentalist Shara Nova, it’s a skeletal, piano-led, emotive ode to their lost friend, who tragically died by suicide in 2018. “If I could I would pick you back up to the top,” Vernon sings at the song’s crushing close. It’s a heartbreaking album centrepiece and a beautiful tribute to Hutchison.
Elsewhere, Ben Howard and This Is The Kit’s folk-driven collaboration, ‘June’s A River’, is a delicate love song and a perfect stylistic pairing, their voices in lush harmony throughout. And ‘Easy To Sabotage’ is Dessner and Vernon’s is most experimental offering on the album, the pair venturing into autotune.
The record covers the full range of human emotion and is huge in scope: from birth to death via love, friends, break-up, make-ups, what-could-have-beens and more. The epitome of the figurative “beating heart” that formed Big Red Machine, this is an autumnal album, one that lays the duo bare emotionally, and one that frequently calls for reflection.
Release date: 27 August