Release Date: Jun 24, 2016
Record label: Island
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.
The Avett Brothers' ninth studio album, True Sadness, is a 51-minute collection of a dozen beautifully and brilliantly crafted tracks. From the opening chords of "Ain't No Man" to the final notes of "May It Last," the record marks the continued progression of a group whose sound has been evolving for 16-years and counting. .
When the words “true sadness” are placed together, the ideas conjured in individual minds take different, yet equally heart-wrenching forms: despair, lost love, somber melodies. With their latest effort, The Avett Brothers produce an intriguing interpretation for such a strong term, molding sadness into something more palatable, and a little less brooding. Avett Brothers’ music has proven to follow a predictable formula: riveting Americana ballads, lyrics that weave intricate stories, and old-timey harmonies and instrumentation that lend themselves to a time that has long passed and been reborn from the ashes.
There's a melancholy to the title of the Avett Brothers' 2016 album True Sadness, but the album's tone doesn't mirror its name. Certainly, there's a bit of a sorrowful undercurrent, something that surfaces on "Divorce Separation Blues," but often there's a buoyancy to the music's spirit, a lightness that's evident even in the burnished bluegrass ballads, tunes where the harmonies and plucked strings combine into a sense of sweetness. Always throwbacks at heart, the Avett Brothers temper their rough-hewn retro affectations by brightening the corners with hints of electronic rhythms and polish, a sly update executed with precision by Rick Rubin.
The Avett Brothers have always positioned themselves as the smarter, droller alternative to the generic, overly earnest folk-pop that has popped up in recent years. Their latest, True Sadness, continues this trend while also introducing more splashes of rock and electronica into their Americana sound. “Smithsonian” is Seth and Scott Avett at their finest, sarcastically claiming to have discovered a series of oft-quoted platitudes for the first time - “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”, the brothers jest.
With echoes of old-timey string bands, singalong folk revivalists,boozy Americana roots rockers and big-box singer – songwriter softies, the Avett Brothers have carved out a remarkably successful 21st-century space for themselves. On each of their last three albums, producer Rick Rubin has helped shape their sound without changing the artisanal recipe. On True Sadness, however, the hip-hop-schooled song swami finally, gently, ushers the Avetts into the pop arena.
When The Avett Brothers first collaborated with Rick Rubin on the band’s major label debut, I And Love And You, the result was a commercial and critical breakthrough. The pairing of the passionate North Carolina roots-rockers and the producer who shepherded Johnny Cash’s late career resurgence made perfect sense on that record (Paste’s Album of the Year in 2009), a bit of mainstream polish giving the Avetts’ earnest songwriting a more lush beauty. The two Avett-Rubin collaborations that followed—The Carpenter and Magpie and the Dandelion—however moved the band away from the bluegrass-inflected Americana that had been so captivating in the first place, settling into a less distinct roots-pop territory.
When the Avett Brothers first teamed up with Rick Rubin in 2009 on the band's commercial breakthrough, I and Love and You, it was safe to assume they were drawn to working with the super-producer based on his famously stripped-down Americana work. After all, the Avetts tend to posture, both aesthetically and musically, as out-of-time antebellum-era troubadours who're going to cure their broken hearts one banjo lick and sad, old-timey harmony at a time. But four albums into their collaboration with the Bearded One, it's beginning to seem like the Avetts—brothers Scott and Seth, along with an ever-increasing group of cohorts—have grown more and more attracted to the side of Rubin who produces the likes of Lady Gaga and Kanye West.
The Avett Brothers’ ninth album arrives with an open letter by Seth Avett, in which many words are written but very little is said: True Sadness, he explains, is a patchwork quilt, both thematically and stylistically, wherein “the roughest denim and the smoothest velveteen” entwine. Given their 16-year climb to success, their digression into more unusual textures feels like a bid to break out of the tweed and into something a little more mainstream. This is certainly their most varied release yet: beyond the traditional country, bluegrass and folk, the North Carolina act expand their sonic palette.
The Avett Brothers once seemed to hold an infinite amount of promise. They were a hardworking group of young men who traded in songs that were as poignant as they were ragged. The titular Avetts, the older Scott and younger Seth, wore their bleeding hearts on their sleeves, and they always came off as earnest, honest, regular fellas from North Carolina who were thoughtfully dedicated to their craft.
Over the course of their career, the Avett Brothers evolved from their unassuming North Carolina origins to major label success, accompanied by a rabid following that’s made them festival staples and affirmed their populist appeal. Their much anticipated new album, True Sadness, boasts a heady though straightforward sound that emphasizes the basics – acoustic guitars, bass, cello, drums and keyboards. Nevertheless, the band has been expanded (in addition to core members Seth and Scott Avett and bassist Bob Crawford, the group currently includes, cellist Joe Kwon, Paul Defiglia on keys, drummer Mike Marsh and fiddler/violinist Tania Elizabeth), and the sound that results is, by turns, both effusive and heartbreaking, flush with remorse and reflection.
“True Sadness,” The Avett Brothers The appearance of programming, synthesizers, and mellotron on the Avett Brothers’ decidedly pop eighth record might have some purist fans of the band’s neo-traditionalism scratching their beards in disbelief. That’s a risk the Avetts are taking with this unapologetically polished album, which reframes their music without sapping their identity. With conflicted lyrics about doubt and marital discord, the songs have a wounded soulfulness seemingly born out of intensive therapy.