It’s been seven years or so since North Carolina folk rockers The Avett Brothers – consisting of the titular siblings Seth and Scott, as well as bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon – emerged onto the mainstream consciousness after years of low-key indie releases. This rise to prominence can be neatly traced back to their major label debut and breakthrough record ‘I and Love and You’, a Rick Rubin-produced, thoroughly modern folk record that polished up their ragged, off-beat Americana and packaged it for the masses. Since then, they’ve amassed a huge cult following in the states, and have wisely applied a ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to their rootsy, heartfelt output.
That has all changed this time, though: whilst sticking with Rubin for a fourth consecutive run – he seems to inspire a type of brand loyalty in his artists rarely achieved by other producers – their ninth album ‘True Sadness’ sees The Avett Brothers branching out into newer sonic territory on their most eclectic set to date, and as the name suggests the lyrical mood is more downbeat this time round than the happy-go-lucky numbers we’ve been used to in the past. Described by Seth Avett as “a patchwork quilt, both thematically and stylistically”, the result is a mixed bag of a record; when it works, it’s thrilling, but the lack of cohesion and occasional misfires make for a frustrating listen.
‘Ain’t No Man’, for example – the giddy, Gospel-tinged opening gambit – stomps along on a nimble, John Mayer-esque blues riff and handclap rhythm; it’s an uncharacteristic turn, but it’s undeniably infectious. We’re back on dry land soon after, though, with the tender, weary journeyman folk of ‘Mama, I Don’t Believe’, which, with its candid lyrics that have a Blood on the Tracks quality and emotive vocal performance, is a standout moment and perhaps the most classic Avett Brothers track on the album. Nine albums in, and Bob Dylan comparisons may be lazy, but also they’re essentially inescapable at this point, especially when the band sings about “angels wings tied to memories” over a bed of churning acoustic guitars and harmonica breaks.
The clear black sheep of this disjointed family of songs comes in the form of ‘Satan Pulls the Strings’, which begins with minor key synth pulses and a quasi-hip hop beat, before descending into a manic banjo-and-slap-bass workout. And to their credit, once the shock subsides you’re left with a batshit crazy experiment that, whilst on paper should perhaps have never left Garageband, actually kind of works. Kind of. Almost.
Amongst these surprising highs, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that a few of the albums cuts fail to hit the mark; the unbelievably lightweight ‘Victims of Life’, for instance, sounds like early Noah and the Whale at their most crashingly twee, and the tongue-in-cheek hoedown ‘Smithsonian’ suffers from more than a few clumsy couplets, chief of all its goofy “call the Smithsonian, I made a discovery/life ain’t forever and lunch isn’t free” refrain. ‘You Are Mine’, meanwhile, has a buzzing synth bassline grafted on to its rhythm section that sounds gimmicky and incongruent with the homegrown earnestness of the rest of the song’s makeup.
Despite these flaws, ‘True Sadness’ does manage to redeem itself with its big, futuristic, dramatic finale ‘May It Last’, a bombastic track with drawn-out, processed vocals and a swirling string section that plays like an ode to Pink Floyd, or The Avett Brothers’ answer to ‘Space Oddity’ minus the drug-addled astronaut. It’s an off-kilter ending to the quirkiest album in the band’s long and winding catalogue, and raises the question of where they’re going to go from here in the future: back to their rootsy reality, or further into the unknown?
‘True Sadness’ is out now via American Recordings and Republic Records
This Avett Brothers article was written by Dan Whiteley, a GIGsoup contributor