I first fell in love with the Avett Brothers because of their poetry. Listening to “Laundry Room” or “Murder in the City” has always been a cathartic experience. Their attention to detail and the power of a turn of phrase is truly unique in today’s world of music. They have the sound that starts a conversation with strangers at my job, a friendship with a random woman at the pool or even an impromptu kitchen dance party with my mom. They tackle grief better than almost any lyricists I can name, and have the unique Bob Dylan-esque ability of making my father huff out a grunt of approval. The Avett Brothers are my favorite band, and that’s why my listening experience with “Closer Than Together” — their ninth studio album — was less than satisfactory.
How do you cope with not loving your favorite band’s new album? Are you suddenly a fake fan? Have you betrayed your own artistic taste? These were all the questions that consumed me as I drove an hour to the Richmond airport preparing to fly to Brooklyn to see the Avett Brothers in concert. I listened to all 55 minutes and 28 seconds of “Closer Than Together” and thought I had missed something. It was … different. The lyrics and syllables that normally have the emphasis of poetic masterpiece felt cramped and muddled. Transitions between tracks felt uncomfortable, and the perfected folk-rock sound I had grown accustomed to was lost in an overstimulating mixture of techno and pop-rock elements.
The album is still great. It’s just not the greatest the Avett Brothers have made. A good portion of it sounds like tracks from “Emotionalism” and “Magpie and the Dandelion”— see “It’s Raining Today,” “Who Will I Hold” and “C-Sections and Railway Tresses.” But it took me three full listens through the album to remember these songs because I was so busy deciphering the others.
There is nothing wrong with branching out from the sound your audience is familiar with. The Avett Brothers have done it successfully multiple times in the past. Even “True Sadness” felt like they were straying from their typical sound, but like I said, “Closer Than Together” is different. They will still be able to completely draw in an arena and make it feel as intimate as an NPR Tiny Desk concert, but something about “Closer Than Together” feels like — ironically — the task might be a bit more difficult.
The intimate nature I had grown used to with The Avett Brothers suddenly felt forced and unnatural. And after my third listen through and dissecting all those lyrics crammed into the 13 track album, I discovered why. It took several listens to “We Americans,” “Bang Bang,” “Long Story Short” and “New Woman’s World” for it to become clear. While it’s fairly obvious that the Avett Brothers were speaking to themes like gun violence, the United States’ complicated moral history and sexism, I wasn’t exactly sure why I wasn’t sold on their delivery until I dove deeper. They were trying to show another intimate side of themselves to their audience, not just making a political statement. They were showing the audience — a politically and socially diverse one at that — that the personal is political too.
Whether or not they were doing that well is another topic entirely. “Closer Than Together” has a significantly more political tone than their past albums, even if the nature of its politics is not as vocal as other musicians. Any folk audience is going to have its fair share of conservative listeners, especially when you take into account the Avett Brothers reliance on spiritual themes and rural imagery. The most political I had ever seen the band get was in 2016 when I saw them at the Sprint Pavilion before the election and they switched a lyric in “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” to “and your life doesn’t change by the woman that’s elected.” So in many ways, the discomfort and clumsiness of “Closer Than Together” is just that — unfamiliar territory.
It’s not the presence of the politics that makes the album different, it’s the way the Avett Brothers approach it. No matter how talented Scott and Seth Avett are as lyricists, they may as well be newborn fawns stumbling into the light of political statements in music. That is not a bad thing. The conversations in “Closer Than Together” are difficult to piece together but easy to digest because they are freshly articulated frustrations. They are honest in their newness. Songs like “We Americans” and “Bang Bang” are jumbled at times, but still have the ferocity of talented writers behind them.
While the cramped lyrics in “We Americans” saying, “a misnamed people and a kidnapped race / laws may change, but we can’t erase the scars of a nation / of children devalued and disavowed / displaced by greed and the arrogance of manifest destiny” may read a little bit like an AP US History DBQ essay outline, the artistry is still there bubbling. It is just exhausting to listen to and dissect because it feels so new. Not to mention the song is also six and a half minutes long.
Maybe this more straightforward approach to personal politics is the Avett Brothers way of saying there isn’t the space or time for flowery language. But I can’t help but miss the poetry. I sing along to “Bang Bang” and “We Americans” and the lyrics feel clunky in my mouth, but I still enjoy the music.
I’m always going to love the Avett Brothers, even if I don’t love all the songs off of their new album. I love that they are always trying new things and I know that there are several tracks off the album that will become crowd favorites. I do hope that they keep working on their approach to politics in music though, because while powerful and emotional, “Closer Than Together” seems to have just missed the mark.