Pretentious, self-indulgent, and underwhelming – those three words would best describe How Long Do You Think it’s Going to Last, the latest collaboration between The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. What is perhaps most disappointing is how much potential this album had. Vernon and Dessner have collaborated before, most notably on their 2018 masterful eponymous record, and more recently, as producers and collaborators on Taylor Swift’s 2020 albums Folklore and Evermore. Along with a host of featured artists, Vernon and Dessner had all the materials they needed to produce a stellar record. But somewhere along the way, they fell short.
Rather than living up to their full potential, Big Red Machine succumbs to the illusion of their own greatness. The result is an hour-long self-worshipping wreck. Some of the songs themselves are alright, but their repetitive backing tracks and whiny vocals make them drag on for what seems like ages. This is repeated on several tracks on the album. By the second half, you are restless, impatient, and ironically asking yourself: “How Long Do You Think it’s going to last?”.
There are some stand out tracks, particularly, ‘Renegade’, a pop song sung primarily by Swift. Perhaps it is the best song on the record precisely because it is mainly sung by her, with Vernon and Dessner as backing vocalists. Her heavy involvement on this track puts a sharp stop to the endless instrumentals that ruin the album. Even then, it feels like a reject from Swift’s Evermore, and at times is almost identical melodically to ‘Long Story Short’.The other stand out track is ‘Reese’, a jazz-influenced folk-rock ballad. However, like most tracks on the album, it is painfully reminiscent of other artists’ work – in this case, the victims being Clairo and St. Vincent.
At its core, what makes this album so deeply disappointing is how desperately unoriginal it sounds. Almost every track on the record sounds like a parody of something else. ‘The Ghost of Cincinnati’ is painfully similar to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ and ‘Hoping Then’ feels like a cheap imitation of one of Elliott Smith’s emotional guitar ballads. The entire album sounds like a compilation of other artists’ B-sides and demos.
It may be best to pretend How Long Do You Think it’s Going to Last never happened and take this opportunity to revisit their infinitely superior older work
There are moments on the album where you think it could get better. And then, Big Red Machine brings you back to square one with another seemingly endless song. The Naeem collaboration ‘Easy To Sabotage’ does exactly what it says on the tin – it sabotages the record. It is a painful imitation of UK garage coupled with Vampire Weekend-esque vocals layered on top.
With Dessner and Vernon being two excellent songwriters, the lyrics on this album should meet those standards. And while there are some excellent lines, these are paired with lazy rhyming couplets which would sound more in place in a book of children’s poetry. What self-respected artists would give the green light to naff lines such as “do I need permission/to break tradition,” (‘Hoping Then’) and “I am less at ease, not the best at these” (‘Renegade’)?
How Long Do You Think it’s Going to Last had the potential to be the best album of the year. Instead, perhaps it serves best as a reminder that even the greatest of artists can fall short. Despite this, Big Red Machine still has potential – their 2018 debut was experimental and creative, and the artists themselves have proven their excellence time and time again. But for the moment, it may be best to pretend How Long Do You Think it’s Going to Last never happened and take this opportunity to revisit their infinitely superior older work.