Little illustration for a Pitchfork review about the Avett Brothers new album “The Carpenter”
It has been said that The Carpenter is the Avett Brothers’ album about death. Death is there in the first song, there in the last, and wheedling all in between. The brothers, actual and nominal, aren’t the raggedy kids they were when they started out a decade ago; they’ve married, started families, settled down. The band’s last record, 2009’s I and Love and You, offered a tamer version of Seth and Scott Avett’s splintered yawps and shredded banjo strings, and their live show has tempered as their catalog has filled out and fanbase expanded from regional devotees to national masses. It’s tempting to peg the Avetts’ story as one of a little-band-that-could selling out and smoothing over when a major label and bigger stages come calling, but I’m not sure it’s that simple; for an act in it for the long haul, a certain rounding of the edges seems not only inevitable, but natural– healthy, even. Growing up is hard to do, but outright refusing can be trickier.
Either way, as the Avetts know, it all shakes out the same in the end. This record, the band’s second for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, is hardly the first time their eyes have focused on that far, dark horizon. Among all the rough-and-tumble soul-searching and skirt-chasing of their five previous releases there’s been a steady procession of nods toward the dying of the light: “The Lowering”, from 2006’s Four Thieves Gone, remains the most gutting; Emotionalism’s “Die Die Die”– which renders death a taunting, stomp-along chorus– still the most fun.
But The Carpenter offers something different. In its most lucid moments, at least, it grapples with something perhaps more unfathomable than dying– not being old, but growing old. “Things change and get strange with the movement of time/ It’s happening right now to you,” Scott drawls on “Down with the Shine”, the rhapsodic choruses smudged with bleary, boozy horns. There’s a vast swath between shaking a fist at death and finally meeting its hand; meanwhile, calendar pages turn, diesel engines pull us along, babies are born. “A Father’s First Spring” could fall into the treacle-trap its title suggests but avoids it thanks to one of the band’s finest songwriting efforts in some time. “I have been homesick to you since we met,” Scott sings of and to his own little girl, countering the sweetness with the sudden abject terror of new fatherhood: “The realest thing I ever felt/ Was the blood on the floor and the love in your yell/ I was a child before the day that I met Eleanor.” Under the verses, guitar lines tease and knit into one another; on the chorus, Benmont Tench’s organ wells and whirrs like an overfull heart.
Too many of the other songs feel starved of that love, though. The title track, which opens the album, suffers from major tonal whiplash, the chillingly oblique line, “when the black dress drags upon the ground, I’ll be ready to surrender,” bafflingly abutted with the rancid cliche of “we’re all in this together.” The maudlin “Winter in my Heart” is colorless despite the verses’ insistence upon listing color after color, the mopey strums and mews of “I don’t know what the reasons are” so effectively calling to mind that antidepressant ad with the morose bouncing ball that Zoloft should cut the band a check. “I Never Knew You” tries to slip into a loose-armed barroom vibe but veers into weird sock-hop territory before it gets the chance, plagued all the while by an needling, petty bitterness that would’ve been out of place even on the band’s freshman efforts.
The most notable travesty here– and I do believe it is a travesty– is “Paul Newman vs. the Demons”, which Scott Avett this summer told Rolling Stone was meant to harken back to the Avett Brothers’ earlier incarnation as “a loud band” with an affection for Soundgarden, but which only proves they were wise to avert course in the first place. Heaped upon the gunky, puffed-up electric guitars and drum thrashings and hernia-busting vocals are lyrics referencing the movie star’s eponymous line of organic, all-proceeds-to-charity wine. “Oh, to be like him and walk a path / To lend a hand, do something worth a damn,” the brothers sing. In all honesty, if these guys want to slap their name on some preservative-free snacks– Avett-O’s, maybe?– I’ll leave Publix with a box or two. But I’d rather reenact the egg-eating scene from Cool Hand Luke with a jar of Sockarooni sauce for dipping than listen to this song ever again.
Track for track, the Avetts’ best release might be 2008’s The Second Gleam, a spry, six-song EP; The Carpenter, winnowed down to its best efforts, would seem of a piece. This may be the real tragedy of the band’s signing to Rubin’s American imprint, which was recently shuffled from Sony to Universal Republic: the need to justify the major-label investment with full LPs rather than the inbetweeny projects allowed for by Ramseur Records, the band’s longtime independent home. Rubin may be a wizard in the studio, but his involvement has fostered a truly remarkable level of bloat in this once bare-boned, focused band. But who knows? Maybe this is all exactly what they want. And if it is, who can blame them for getting it? Life is too short, and too long, for anything else.