Big Red Machine’s ‘Reese’

Justin Vernon’s natural singing voice, by which I mean his capacious baritone, not his crooning falsetto, has the most immediate physical effect on me. I liken it to a thaw. The color of his voice—a hue akin to cinnamon hickory or a red oak (always a wood whose grain looks like errant waves sketched against the shore)—breaks through the winter of these surrounding times and reminds me of something not just warm but magnanimous.

Vernon typically doesn’t sing with his normal register. As Bon Iver, he’s crafted an emotionally wrought falsetto—a choice he made for his 2007 debut album For Emma, Forever Ago because he said it felt less vulnerable to sing such extremely personal songs that way, to be so bare about all that he was baring.

He’s flirted with using his full voice in Bon Iver, veiling it with the Messina for 2016’s 22, A Million and at times stepping out from behind that screen on 2019’s i,i. But with Big Red Machine, his collaborative project with Aaron Dessner, there are longer and more luxurious flashes of the real deal. On the pair’s most recent album, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, the track ‘Reese” comes it at a lengthy five minutes. So much splendid time to roll around and revel in that ambrosian voice.

“Reese” begins before the beginning: A saxophone flutter, a drumroll, a beat box, and it’s off. A piano riff unfurls the central melody, harmonizing with itself briefly before Vernon begins singing. He doubles his voice and adds a slight effect, thickening his presence as though it were a roux. “Where’s the middle again?/ Can I get back there?” he asks, his voice rising with need, before settling into resignation.

How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is a meandering album that makes more space for collaborative explorations than Big Red Machine did on their 2018 self-titled debut. If Vernon and Dessner’s central partnership formed the cornerstone for that LP then they cast their respective nets wider on How Long. Vernon appears in brushstrokes but the larger canvas isn’t his to claim—except on “Reese.”

Appearing near the very start of the album, it’s such an obvious standout. On the Friday morning the album dropped, I remember listening to “Reese” and needing to replay it three times before I could advance to the rest. I kept wanting to get lost in its maze. It’s as visceral an experience as I’ve had with any song this year. Hearing it, the clenched fist straining at the center of my chest unfolded.

Vernon loves not just poetically dense but practically opaque lyrics. “Reese” (as with much of his Big Red Machine lyricism) paints a clearer picture. There’s tension with the past, and the memories surfacing throughout the song, but Vernon doesn’t let it swallow him. “Well, I’m more than that, well, I’m more than that / Well, I’m more than that, well, I’m more,” he intones. He also doesn’t let “Reese” escape without shifting into his falsetto near the end, when the song builds into a long and ongoing crescendo. As the emotion rises, he takes flight into his head voice.

Perhaps it seems strange to talk about a singer having two voices. After all, it’s more likely to talk about their range. But even though it emanates from the same person, I find Vernon’s duality so distinctive that it makes more sense to discuss them as identities he inhabits rather than talents he exhibits—though of course they are both.

I can’t explain why I respond so deeply to “Reese,” of all the songs in Vernon’s repertoire. (And there are many that I adore.) But thanks to its mostly unfettered glimpse of Vernon’s baritone, “Reese” does something to me. Every time. Maybe it reminds me of summers in Eau Claire, hearing Vernon play against the wide wonder of the Wisconsin sky, or what musical moments before this frozen, bewildering time once proffered. And perhaps in that memory lies a reminder to breathe, stop bracing, and be: “What you shoulda been / What you woulda been / But it ain’t no problem now.”