Photo courtesy of Republic Records/Universal Music

‘Closer Than Together’ Is Up and Down for the Avett Brothers

The good outweighs the not so good on the Avett Brothers' Closer Than Together, but not by a lot. Is it time for producer Rick Rubin to move on?

Closer Than Together
The Avett Brothers
Republic Records
4 October 2019

Ten years on from I and Love and YouI and Love and You, the Avett Brothers’ 2009 major label debut and first album with super-producer Rick Rubin seems like even more of a demarcation point now than it did at the time. It was the album that brought the piano into the band as a major instrument, that smoothed out a lot of the group’s rough edges, and really put the spotlight on Seth and Scott Avett’s songwriting. Not that the brothers didn’t have considerable songwriting chops before that, but by getting the band to focus more on arrangements and presentation than energy and volume, Rubin really brought out nuances in the band that were harder to find in their earlier albums.

The new album Closer Than Together is the band’s fifth studio album with Rubin producing. It’s also the band’s 10th full-length overall; although the Avett’s early years contain a bevy of EP’s and live records that muddy the waters when counting up their releases. The point I’m making is that the Avett Brothers have now spent roughly the same amount of time working on studio albums with Rick Rubin as they’ve spent working with anyone else. As with their previous album, 2016’s True Sadness, I have to wonder if the band hasn’t reached the point of diminishing returns in its work with Rubin. True Sadness has some really great songs on it and a handful of interesting, cool production choices. It also has a few pretty limp, boring songs, particularly in the ballads. That ratio is roughly the same on Closer Than Together.

The album begins with the bracing “Bleeding White”, a hard rocker full of noisy electric guitars and feedback that answers the question, “What would the Avett Brothers sound like if they wrote a Black Keys song?” The answer, it turns out, is that it sounds almost exactly like that band’s 2011 single, “Howlin’ for You”, but with a tender solo piano with vocals break in the middle. It’s not exactly an original-sounding song, but it’s a positive that the band is no longer burying its plugged-in songs near the end of their albums, as if they’re a little embarrassed to be using electric guitars instead of banjos.

Speaking of banjos, for the fans out there who measure how much they like an Avett Brothers album by the amount of banjo included, Closer Than Together‘s banjo is virtually non-existant. By my count, it’s a subtle background instrument on just one song. Sorry, old school fans.

The goodwill from the rockin’ start lasts until about halfway through second song, “Tell the Truth”, which begins with a nice electric piano figure and features a lovely harmonized chorus, “Tell the truth to yourself / And the rest will fall in place”. Then there’s a spoken word monologue where Seth ruminates on the idea of being able to make everyone in his life happy, but how that doesn’t mean much if he isn’t taking care of his own well-being.

The Avett Brothers have a “be positive because we’re all in this together” streak that can be cloying or sanctimonious, and that’s definitely the case here. “Tell the Truth” essentially stops dead for this monologue, and even though it returns to its pretty harmonies, it has trouble recapturing the mood.

First single “High Stepping” combines similar elements but does it a bit better. It rides on a pulsing synth bass drone and a slightly funky drumbeat while Scott sings about good times and bad, and how he’d sell out his friends if it meant protecting his family. It’s a nice combination of light and dark…until Seth steps in for another spoken word monologue.

This once again stops the song for some aphorisms that don’t sound so nice when they aren’t accompanied by sweet harmonies. But this time it leads into a soaring bridge, which shakes off the monologue much more effectively than it did in “Tell the Truth”, and pushes the song back into the fun chorus.

Speaking of monologues, Closer Than Together this has been mentioned as the band’s “political” album. The Avetts are not political in their music, but the national mood under the Trump Administration has seeped into even their music, this time. “We Americans”, is Seth’s musical examination of US citizens’ relationship to their country’s history. Musically, it’s quite simple, with spare acoustic guitar accompanying the verses, while vocal harmonies, arco strings, and piano join in on the refrain.

Lyrically, he references all sorts of national embarrassments that are remembered, some better than others, throughout the history of the country. His conclusion, though, is typically positive with “We are more than the sum of our parts” and “I dearly love this land”. It’s an effective song.

More fun but less impactful is the jaunty, piano-driven, “New Woman’s World”. Seth apologizes for the actions of men who have been society across the ages. “We cared about clean air / But there was money to be made / And breathing’s nice but it don’t compare with getting paid”. He also acknowledges the “not all men” of it later on, “Scores of decent men built the road I’m standing on”. The best line of the song is the end of the chorus, which sardonically concludes about women, “I can’t wait to see what they do / With what’s left of the world”.

Then there’s “Bang Bang” which, despite attempting to sell itself as a gentle, personal story, comes off as a rant against action movies and guns. Seth is complaining about not wanting to watch movies with the assassin character, John Wick in them, because he has had guns pointed at him on two occasions. This spins out into complaining about living in a rural area where his neighbors own guns and like to shoot at targets. “Every Sunday they’re out there / Pretending to be Rambo / And I’m in here, pretending / Like Sunday is still sacred”.

Closer Than Together‘s other two upbeat songs, “Locked Up” and “C Sections and Railway Trestles”, are quite good. The latter is a goofy country song with a silly, wordless “Baaa baaa bum ba dum ba dum” vocal hook. Seth drawls about the birth of his son, describing it and his early months of life with a combination of affection and matter of fact narration. It’s a bit over the top, but delivered with such good-natured charm that it works.

“Locked Up”, coming as the album’s penultimate track, is essentially a power-pop track from Scott. It starts quiet and builds into a chorus that adds drums and some great cello from Joe Kwon. It’s a well-constructed song that’s easy to like and easier to sing along with on the chorus, “I can’t be locked up like this”.

If only that was where the album ended. Instead we get a final ballad, the treacly “It’s Raining Today”. Slow-moving piano and quietly crooned vocals intend for this to be a tender, heartfelt song, but it’s six minutes of excruciating sentimentality. It’s similar for the rest of the ballads on the slow-paced second half of the album. “When You Learn”, “Better Here”, and “Who Will I Hold” are each better than “It’s Raining Today”, but none of them are particularly memorable amongst the Avetts’ long history of romantic balladry.

That isn’t the case on the stronger A side of the album, which boasts “Long Story Short”, Closer Than Together‘s most distinctive ballad. A ¾ waltz backed up with guitar and arco bass and cello, Scott spends four minutes constructing miniature character sketches, sympathetic stories of tangentially related people. The focus shifts frequently from character to character, mentioning their foibles and personal issues. It choked me up. The conclusion of the song, “Long story short / Best I can tell / Children can’t be left / To raise themselves”, is a sad, emotional hit in the gut that brings focus to the track’s micro stories.

The Avetts have been doing this for too long and are too accomplished as songwriters to make an album that’s a total dud. The good stuff on Closer Than Together is really quite excellent. But when the balance is just a bit more good material than mediocre (or worse) material, you start to question the production choices involved, particularly when Rubin allows the final impression the album leaves to be the bad Bacharach impersonation of “It’s Raining Today”. Maybe a new voice in the room would help Scott and Seth and the rest of the band refocus for the next time out.

RATING 6 / 10