Big Red Machine release their second album later this month. It’s a fine name for ten tonnes of agricultural apparatus but perhaps not quite so persuasive for a pop group, particularly one with a considerably lower profile than most of its members. A collective formed by the National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Big Red Machine has corralled the likes of Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes), Sharon Van Etten and Taylor Swift into making a collaborative record called How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?.
It sounds intriguing on paper, but the quality of musical collaborations is notoriously hard to gauge from the cast list. Unlike film, in which significance and potential accrue according to the sheer weight of star quality mustered, musical collaborations often fall prey to negative creative equity. The sum is not one of multiplication, but division.
They come in many forms. One of the biggest songs of the past 12 months is ‘Levitating’ by Dua Lipa featuring rapper DaBaby. This kind of quick’n’dirty double-header is a staple in the worlds of pop, hip hop, R&B and country, where the ‘guest feature’ denotes freshness, kudos and — crucially — a doubling of demographic reach. From Aerosmith and Run DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’ in the 1980s to Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s ‘Crazy In Love’ in the noughties, over three minutes this collision of ambition and excitement can be explosive.
Stretch it over an evening, or an album, and the success ratio plummets. We’ve all witnessed the one-off multi-artist tryst beloved of experimental contemporary music events which end up sounding under-rehearsed, over-hyped and faintly disappointing. It’s hardly surprising. Fording the spaces between genres and working modes requires more than good intentions. An after-you air of politeness leaves nobody fully free to express themselves. Perhaps inhibition is built into the very notion of collaboration. For the artist, it throws up an awkward proposition: if it’s too successful, you look like you need help.
The conundrum is that collaborations truly succeed when musicians can be themselves yet also transform into something else. How does that work? I’m not sure, but I know it when I hear it. One of the best live shows I’ve seen was Franz Ferdinand and Sparks — trading, perfectly, as FFS — at the Glasgow School of Art in 2015. FFS not only accentuated everything great about both bands, but slathered new great things on top. Witnessed up close, it was the arch indie-art-rock motherlode.
It convinced me that serious collaborations require spade work — it’s not easy writing and recording an entire record with another artist — and some sense of jeopardy. Elvis Costello has form in this regard. Sometimes it works (as with The Juliet Letters, his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet), sometimes it doesn’t (the grim For The Stars, with Anne Sofie von Otter) but there’s nothing half-hearted in the intent. Special commendations, too, to stellar north American songwriters — Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs — who recently triangulated their individual sensibilities to create one fine record, case/lang/veirs. On Soused, Scott Walker and Sunn O))) used drones to drill deeper into their respective darkness. In 2002, on The Ugly American, alternative rock musician Mark Eitzel brought the lovelorn ache in his songs to full blossom by recording them with a band of Greek folkies.
It’s easy to understand the attraction of sharing the load, particularly during the past 18 months. The interplay a musician enjoys with an audience is a crucial collaboration in itself. In its absence, other connections have been sought. Given the ease at which technology facilitates remote working (several of the participants in Big Red Machine have yet to meet in the real world) and given the state of the music industry — cancelled tours, dwindling physical sales, paltry streaming revenue— it’s little wonder artists are seeking more than ever to widen the opportunities to create in new ways. Laura Marling has just released her second album as LUMP, in tandem with Mike Lindsay. In September, Sufjan Stevens is releasing a record with labelmate Angelo De Augustine, featuring co-written songs ‘(loosely) based on (mostly) popular films’. (The gratuitous concept is a recurring feature of collaborations, as though their very existence requires an over-arching justification.)
For well-known names, these projects present a chance to experiment without the weight of expectation. They are a retreat from the pressures of being the main attraction. This is pertinent to Big Red Machine: Vernon has talked often of craving ways to escape the heat of fronting Bon Iver. At the very least, they are creative release valves. At best, they are mission statements from like-minded communities of artists. At worst, like drum solos and experimental albums by bass players, they are frequently more fun for those involved than those listening.
Big Red Machine’s new album How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is released on 27 August.