One of the great things about popular music is that it’s layered. You can peel away the glamorous reverbs and studio trickery, the Auto-Tune, and the perfect ticking of a digital drum machine. You can wash off the vocal mannerisms and keyboard noises that are currently in vogue. You can dig a bit deeper, past the oh-so-current subject matter and whatever beat is filling the dance floor at the club, and hopefully, you’re left with something worth listening to. With The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers have saved you all time, mess, and expense by thoughtfully providing you with just eight songs. Eight simple, lovely, unvarnished songs.
The Third Gleam is the latest in a series of EPs that the duo have released periodically since 2006. In this edition, they’ve pared their sound down to voices, acoustic guitars, bass, and the occasional banjo, leaving nothing to hide behind. Even in their chosen genre – a kind of sepia-toned, rootsy Americana – there’s normally some production, but not here. The Third Gleam could have been recorded on a front porch, live, with a single microphone. Fortunately, Scott and Seth Avett have bought their A-game (along with longtime bassist Bob Crawford) and delivered something hard to dislike.
The eight songs are nearly all relentlessly downbeat, lyrically bleak, and heartsick. Whether the brothers have tapped into the mood of 2020 or it’s just an (un)happy accident, it’s hard to say, but generally, the lyrical content is not for the fainthearted. You’d think a song called “Victory” would be an air-punching celebration of something. Nope. The refrain is, “From victory, I accept defeat.” Yikes. And that’s the first song. That aside, the song is gorgeous and beautifully sung over a low-key acoustic guitar arrangement and sets the tone for the rest of the EP perfectly.
The stripped-back approach is carried over into the brothers’ lyrical approach. There’s no clever wordplay here, no jagged metaphors or head-scratching similes. The tone is simple and conversational, and on a couple of occasions, it’s almost as if they’re thinking out loud. For the most part, it works beautifully. Writing a song about a school shooting requires incredible taste and restraint, and fortunately for us, “I Should’ve Spent the Day with My Family” has them both. A series of mundane activities (“I walked into the kitchen and turned the coffee maker on”) are juxtaposed with the narrator’s simple, heartfelt reaction to the event. There is one incredibly elegant line, tucked away in the middle of the song; “I was wondering when God left and why he didn’t say goodbye.” Amen to that.
You can almost forgive them for the slightly cheesy lyric of “Women Like You”. I’m not sure how a fully emancipated, new millennium woman would view lines like “Oh, you look good in a t-shirt, All-Stars, and jeans / Look good all done up in makeup and bling”, but I can’t imagine it would be too favorable. It’s a quaint turn of phrase, and I have no doubt that it’s done out of simple respect, but it grates a little. And hearing the word “bling” in this incredibly rural setting is pretty jarring, too.
The Third Gleam poses many questions and offers few answers. But that’s OK. This isn’t a down-home self-improvement resource or some vanilla background noise you can dip in and out of. It’s earnest and raw and surprisingly delicate. Sometimes, you don’t want to hear someone singing about how everything will be OK and why we should just keep smiling. By laying themselves so open, the Avett Brothers are allowing us to empathize with them, and in doing that, to heal ourselves.