With the two-decade mark looming for the Avett Brothers, one of American indie rock’s prized gems, it would be fair enough to assume that they’ve hit the resting-on-laurels point in their career. Once an album like 2009’s I And Love And You
gets placed on the wall, what else is there to do besides relax and roll the hits?
And, yes, to a certain extent the albums that followed — The Carpenter
and Magpie and the Dandelion
in 2012 and, in quick succession, in 2013 — leaned heavily on the snoozefest descriptor. They weren’t particularly great albums, and, indeed, the shadows of the band’s earlier work ran long and thick. How could they not?
This year, however, the band turned inward, toward the musicians’ roots, and mustered up a proper addition to their history. True Sadness
saw the Avett Brothers return to honest form, to a sense of songwriting and recording that was at once quintessentially Avett — their voice, their passions — and also kept an eye pointed toward new sonic pastures. Check it out: Under the guidance of longtime producer Rick Rubin, the band began cutting quick demos in the studio, and then remixing and tweaking them into new, more fully evolved versions of the stuff that these guys have been crafting for years.
“We’ve always been interested in all genres and all kinds of sounds,” Scott Avett says in a gentle Carolina drawl. He fronts the band with his brother, Seth Avett, and bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon. He adds that the running motif in the band’s work over years has been simplicity in their message — “to make space to make sure what we’re saying is defined.” Still, these are creative musicians whose interests and influences can’t help but expand.
“That said, we also have been moving — since we began — we’ve been moving and exploring,” Avett says. “I think it comes out in a slow change for us over a career or over a life, although I think it may be burning in a very drastic change within us. We might be thinking in terms of an extreme EDM record that we’re going to make, and then it comes out with just slight EDM nuances. I think that’s what happened with True Sadness
. We were thinking of really turning it upside-down with that album, by using the computer and keyboards and some samples and whatnot, but the lyrics kept pulling us back to back sure that whatever message was in the song was heard. The simple nature of our country sensibility is still there, and we don’t do that consciously.”
In fact, there are versions of all of these latest tunes that are performed entirely by computer-programmed instruments (save for the vocal work). It’s an “extreme” contrast to the band’s canon, Avett notes, but it’s emblematic of how maturing musicians gather the world around them and then pare down their newfound technique to reflect their own voice. Avett mentioned as an aside that he’s been digging the new Bon Iver record, which accomplished for Justin Vernon many of the same creative releases that True Sadness
seems to have done for the Avetts.
And it’s not for nothing that this album came when it did.
“Since we had released the last records, a lot has happened in our lives,” Avett says. “From scary and tragic things like illnesses to divorces to exciting and happy things like births and children and even new relationships — all over the map, really, emotionally.”
The band took stock of those swings and, as Avett says, wanted to “get on record” the courses that they’ve charted in the past few years. With that introspection came an opportunity to see things as they stand in the grand scope of life — to mark the good and the bad against a few decades of experience on this planet. Whereas the guys zoomed in on the minutiae of personal relationships and internal struggles in the past, here they stretched their philosophical legs a bit and accounted for the whole of the human universe.
"The themes at their core are extremely intimate,” Avett says, “but they may get masked with a broadness at times. For example, divorce overall in the broad scope is something that a lot of people experience, where each one is specifically painful in its own different way. My point is: We really just wanted to continue that exploitation of our lives. That’s what we do.”
Two songs worth pointing to, briefly, are “Smithsonian” and the album’s title track. The former is as jaunty and upbeat a song as the band has ever written, even as the Avetts break down middle-aged revelations on the impermanence of life and love. (“Call the Smithsonian I made a discovery/ Life ain't forever and lunch isn't free/ Loved ones will break your heart with or without you / Turns out we don't get to know everything.”) And on “True Sadness,” the snappy electronic snare alluded to by the band’s newfound remix leanings introduce a song that revels in the warmth of sadness — that old unavoidable friend in this rollercoaster life we lead.
The Avett Brothers have always been an honest band, and that’s because they’re paying attention in an age of distractions and mimicry.
“In time, I think, you return to songs that you had written, maybe, in an aspiration to believe something you were writing or aspiring to — to see in life or to do a certain thing,” Avett says. “I use an example of a song from years ago, ‘Salvation Song,’ which was a song written as young men — relatively bold and aspiring. Complete aspiration. But you revisit it as an older person than you were when you wrote it, feeling a new conviction for the songs.”
Surely, True Sadness
will marinate and refocus the perceptions of its listeners and, indeed, its creators. For now, it’s a worthy meditation on the tapestry of life in an otherwise unsettled year of American culture.
The Avett Brothers
7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 15, Akron Civic Theatre, 182 S. Main St., Akron, 330-535-2488. Tickets: $45-$60, akroncivic.com.