Aaron Dessner is showing no signs of slowing down. After working on back-to-back albums with Taylor Swift in 2020, the founding member of The National is back with yet another release, this time with his buzzy Big Red Machine project, a partnership with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver). The two kings of collaboration have a knack for making music with friends, and for How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, they gathered over a dozen of them including Swift, Anaïs Mitchell, Naeem, Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes), Sharon Van Etten and more.
Shades of Swift’s Evermore and Folklore can be heard on more than just the two tracks that feature her vocals, “Birch” and “Renegade.” Those heavy keys and driving pop melodies permeate both projects, as Dessner worked on them simultaneously. How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is exploratory and wide open, allowing each song to create its own little world. On the Dessner-led “Ghost of Cincinnati” that space is gently frantic and breathless, on “Hutch” (with Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, and Shara Nova) it is hymnal and airy, on the La Force collaboration “8:22am” it is hypnotic and steady, and on album opener “Latter Days” (with Mitchell) it is brooding and nostalgic.
The album’s dreamiest spots are its most vibrant ones, like “Mimi,” the multi-layered duet between Vernon and Ilsey, and “Phoenix,” a gorgeous spotlight for Pecknold’s otherworldly croon. Somehow all the pieces fit together, even the unlikeliest.
Vernon features prominently across the record, shapeshifting his amorphous voice to fit with each vocalist that joins him. But it’s Dessner’s vocal moments that surprise and delight, all softness and light on tunes like “Magnolia” and “Bryce.” Watching him experiment and come into his own not only as a songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer, but also as a singer is rewarding.