On their latest, the Avetts set their past, present, and future front-and-center in compelling fashion.
For every band that makes it far enough to call music-making their bread and butter, there’s a hundred other bands that wouldn’t be so lucky. Conversely, for every band that manages to call music-making their bread and butter for over 15 years like the Avett Brothers -- well, there’s bound to be some variance involved in their portfolio to perpetuate such longevity.
For Scott & Seth Avett’s genre-bending folk rock band, such variance has been spread far and wide since attracting the attention of big-time producer Rick Rubin after the release of 2007’s highly acclaimed Emotionalism. Not unlike the changes made by other names set into the spotlight, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ transformation from a fusion of rap and rock into a layered funk-pop ensemble, to Bob Dylan going electric (and later deciding to break the acoustic back out and croon into his later years), not every one of their original listeners has enjoyed what they have seen as a descent into slicker, more attentively produced music.
To a point, this is understandable; you try something new and not everyone is going to like it. It’s a primal law of human existence. At the same time, for those enthusiasts who have stuck with the Avetts and their growing collective of bandmates, from Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon to Mike Marsh, Paul DeFiglia, and Tania Elizabeth, they have mostly been graced by one of the most effectively chameleonesque acts in today’s industry. Striking a chord with listeners on the clap-along-laden “Ain’t No Man” to the point that it became their first No. 1 on a Billboard chart only marks the tip of the iceberg in regards to their long and vibrant history of taking what you might expect of them and flipping it on its head. Though True Sadness is their most arguably different album yet, it’s also one of their most impressively varied, and another listenable addition to their overall catalog.
Even then, the album is top-loaded with the familiar, with “Mama, I Don’t Believe”, “No Hard Feelings”, and “Smithsonian” all feeling like distinctively warm, distinctively North Carolinian folk rock numbers that wear honest deliveries and soothing, full traditional instrumentation as their primary benefits. A bridge complete with harmonica, a sweeping string section, and an electric guitar solo make for a compelling listen on the former, whereas “No Hard Feelings” might be their most lyrically compelling track since the likes of “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” as Seth leads a contemplative vocal reflecting on a life lived to its fullest. Finally, “Smithsonian” is a feel-good, singalong type of song with a relatable message and an earthen instrumentation, and together, the arguably underrated trio of tracks proves that the brothers still absolutely know their roots.
Things might get weird for some as the album immediately drops from said traditional trio into a vat of electronic influence on fifth track “You Are Mine”, and while it didn’t personally work for this humble reviewer, it still remains admirable that the brothers have stretched as far as they have outwards, musically, to surprise their audience. For what it’s worth, the track features a scrumptious piano that makes it worth the occasional listen, and the spacey breakdown over Seth’s vocals on the chorus make for a compelling choice of production.
The album then cedes into its most controversial track -- a studio recording of “Satan Pulls the Strings”, a song written on the back of a killer banjo riff that has long been a staple of the Avett Brothers’ live shows. While, again, a foray into something new and perhaps an understandable disappointment for some who were just hoping for a mastered and cleaned-up version of what they already knew from the song, the funky grunge of this studio recording, conversely, is something that works. The dark edge of the song is only further perpetuated by the filthiness of this version’s beat and in the overall way that it carries itself, and as it succeeds seamlessly into the much more (perhaps ironically) upbeat sound of the titular “True Sadness”, it makes for a compelling listen worthy of a replay.
Outside of these two songs, however, the only huge sonic surprise left on the album is its closer. “May It Last” opens like a sweeping orchestral rock song ripped out of the 1970s, which then immediately cedes into something like classical blended with the brothers’ trademark folk stylings, all before jumping right back into the aforementioned rock mixed with a portion of the electronic synth found on “You Are Mine”. The song is produced surprisingly so in a way that all of these influences pull together to somehow work, and whether listeners admire the work for their own personal hearing pleasure or not, there is something to admire in just how well-crafted the album is.
It’s in its more unexpected moments, like during its closer, that it manages to showcase the brothers as songwriters and performers in new ways. Whether these moments also shine for dedicated listeners or not is up in the air, but their willingness to expand their horizons remains consistently appealing and, arguably, should keep them in the game for even decades to come. Otherwise, they flex their artistic muscles in more relatable ways on an incredibly well-interpreted acoustic duo of tracks -- earnest love song “I Wish I Was”, and “Fisher Road to Hollywood”. The latter features both Seth and Scott on shared vocals in a way not unrelated to fellow celebrated folk act the Milk Carton Kids, with only simplistic guitar picking acting as an in-between for the two as they deliver a compellingly reflective vocal performance across a lyric pertaining to the dangers of the celebrity scene, and what it may mean for someone in their lineage to suddenly find fame as they have.
“Divorce Separation Blues” follows a similar pattern of being an organic, earthen piece of folk music, although with Seth on lead and Scott on backing vocals, it enjoys tasteful accompaniment on drums, banjo, bass, and guitar. The highlight of the track comes in Seth’s surprisingly good incorporation of a traditional country yodel as the centerpiece of a traditional-sounding song that might be all-too-sadly relatable for a strong handful of listeners. Finally, “Victims of Life” features an island vibe that hasn’t been explored much by the brothers and their troupe until this point -- except for, perhaps, in “Pretty Girl from San Diego” -- and it comes across as equally as playful as the Avetts lead a singalong on the ironies of life and its many pitfalls.
Some have labeled True Sadness as the Avett Brothers’ worst album ever, while others have labeled it as their very best. While there is room for such polarization in such a varied overall career as the brothers have perpetuated thus far, what matters is that they are still finding ways to reinvent themselves while remaining true to the values that have made their music theirs since 2002’s Country Was. In the end, True Sadness plays out like a love letter from the band to their careers so far and the lives that they’ve lead during and between all of the musical hustling and bustling. If Seth’s letter announcing its arrival prior to release has any overarching voice in this, their goal of developing a record that portrays itself as “multidimensional as its makers” has been thoroughly achieved.