There’s not much for the Avett Brothers to prove. It’s been nearly a decade since the group issued the breakthrough Emotionalism album that solidified the group’s reputation as a singular voice in the Americana scene. Where some were too earnest, the Avetts leaned on aloof humor. Where some sought the irreverent and ironic, the Avetts opted for sincerity and even sentimentality. Moreover, this was a band that came by its music honestly. These were songs written from a place of experience rather than solely from imagination. You got the feeling that Scott and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford grew up listening to the music they played. Sure, at some point they cocked their ears toward the sounds of Seattle and probably had a Candlebox record lurking somewhere in the CD towers, but at the end of the day they knew their Hank Williams from their Bill Monroe and their Steve Earle from their Alan Jackson.
There are and have always been hints of gospel and the spiritual thrown in, even as the group joined Rick Rubin’s American label in 2008. Issuing I and Love and You the next year, the group didn’t disappoint with a transition to a higher profile imprint. There have been concessions to a more pop-oriented market along the way, but even those seemed organic as the core three became four.

So, the announcement of a new Avett’s record earlier this year came with a letter to fans in which Seth Avett told/warned fans that the record was a patchwork of influences and styles that included Queen, Nine Inch Nails and Pink Floyd. He threw in Walt Disney and Sister Rosetta Tharpe too. That list could be a surprise for anyone who’s been listening all this time. It also doesn’t come as a surprise when you hear this record.

This isn’t the best Avett Brothers album yet. In fact, “patchwork” could be code for “a bit of a mess”—but what a mess it is. “Ain’t No Man” grooves like a soul record with a buoyant, boisterous bass line and vocals that could be gleaned from Top 40 radio at this moment or performed by a chain gang some decades back. “Satan Pulls the Strings” sounds like Jimmie Rodgers on a mescaline bender and the titular piece blends the group’s classic sound with a pop sheen. It’s hard to be convinced that this crossing of the streams is always for the best. There are moments when one wonders if the band is reaching a bit, grasping at eclecticism for eclecticism’s sake.

Still, it’s hard to begrudge a band moving forward. If True Sadness isn’t a retread of the greatest hits, so be it. It fails in ways that other records wish they could succeed. Even those tunes that don’t rise to the group’s reputation still have moments of brilliance, times when we’re reminded why folks flip their wig when they hear that the Avetts are coming to town. There’s wit, wisdom and general knowing in those songs and the personal becomes universal.

The new ground broken here is of dubious distinction. It’s hard to imagine that the Avetts have sounded as maudlin as they do on “Mama, I Don’t Believe,” a crisis of the heart, a crisis of confidence and a crisis of faith. Maudlin though it may be, it’s one of the most effortlessly gorgeous tunes here or anywhere in the group’s larger catalog. “No Hard Feelings” offers more of the same and is at times hard to take in for all the pain expressed in its lines. It’s clear that the song’s inspiration comes from the unmistakable sting of divorce and that sting is palpable throughout the song. You can’t help but wince as the verses roll by.

“Divorce Separation Blues” walks that familiar line between a laugh and a tear and elevates the out-and-out divorce songs on the album from the doldrums of self-pity. True, it’s a darker blend of humor than some might be prepared for, and whether you laugh or cry while listening to it might very well depend on the time of day one listens. It’s also the track that’s probably truest to the classic sound of the band and one of a handful that will endure beyond this record’s tour cycle.

One that will probably be forgotten come early 2018 is “Victims of Life,” which sounds like beer or blue jean commercial fodder that’ll rot your teeth. The closing “May It Last” suffers from heavy-handed production that robs the piece of its emotional truths. A notch pulled back here or a fader left down there might reveal a better song lurking beneath that radio-ready veneer.

What we have on our hands is indeed a bit of a mess; it’s a record that reaches, fumbles, succeeds and sometimes fails. It’s neither the end of the band nor a gateway to a future that barely reflects the Avett Brothers’ past. The band isn’t over and better records lie ahead. This is evidence of at least one man who is battered but not completely broken. In the meantime, the best medicine for us all might be to enjoy this one’s highlights and forgive its lows. All of it is evidence that these are musicians who are, in the end, only human.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Hunt Sales Memorial: Get Your Shit Together

Stamped into his personality and his music is a boldness that commands respect. …