The Avett Brothers, for all their possible quantifiers, are not a band to be branded as subtle. Powerful, yes. Emotional, certainly. Nuanced? Not so much. For X years the band has quietly ascended the mountain of folk-pop, from the potential filled Emotionalism and Second Gleam EP to the just off-center I and Love and You, now finally a culmination of their ascension to the pinnacle: The Carpenter. Again helmed by guru Rick Rubin, and again a willful tightening of the band’s already tightened, digestible essence, The Carpenter is destined to be the Avett’s breakout, be that a good or ill prophecy.
It’s hard to say that the success The Carpenter will afford the Avett’s is unearned. The band have fought tooth and nail to build themselves up from nothing, a genuinely appreciable backstory that the Brothers’ main rival, Mumford & Sons, can’t hope to co-opt as their own. Mumford may still be taking undeserved attention from the Avett’s, but The Carpenter’s overtness and pristine production figure to take a small slice out of the overrated Sons’ pie. The real issue lies in where that chart-topping iTunes hit will come from on the record: Perhaps “Live and Die,” even though it takes steals a little bit too much sunshine from the childish melodies of They Might Be Giants. But everything here is so earnest that it’s hard to begrudge some of the songs for being earnestly happy.
But it’s not as if the Avett’s were very complex from the beginning (“The Ballad of Love and Hate” from Emotionalism”). But things seem even a bit more on the nose here – a lovelorn ode to depression here (“Winter in My Heart”), and couple of bookend set pieces about the beauty of life (the first and last track, the latter of which is wincingly called “Life”). This overtness isn’t unwelcome, and the band certainly aren’t just screaming “I’m sad” into a microphone ad nauseum. Yet for some reason, label-dictated reasons or a sudden burst of maturity, emotional complexity has run dry of the Brothers.
Maturity is a large theme on The Carpenter. At least half of the songs wrestle with death in some form – from the obvious eulogy (“Through My Prayers”) or the opening track’s mission statement (“If I live a life worth living / I won’t be scared to die”). Elsewhere there’s a woozy mid-tempo number about accepting ones flaws (“Down With the Shine”) and a legitimately sweet dedication to one of the Brothers’ first children (“Father’s First Spring”). The latter even gives up a line directly about the band’s maturation – “I was a child before the day I met Eleanor.”
Scattered amongst the new fatherhoodisms and mature rumination about ones spot in life are a few old touchstones of the Avett’s former youthful heartbrokenness. The album’s best track is a vicious number, the rocking “Pretty Girl From Michigan,” which cops a mean guitar riff while telling about a (what else?) love gone wrong. Sadly there are also the woefully ill-advised changes of formula. “Paul Newman vs. The Demons” is an awful attempt at straight rock, but ends up sounding a bit like Incubus and betraying the entire aura of the record. The song is only slightly saved by its somewhat decent lyrical bent, a callback to former denial-of-the-past times. But the fact remains that twentysomething angst doesn’t really suit these boys anymore, not with the obvious turn towards middle age.
Rubin’s production helps to move this maturity on its way. Maybe their restless spirit, one of the gifts that brought them so far up the fame mountain, is blunted a bit by the increased production values, but it’s hard to deny that The Carpenter is gorgeously engineered, probably earning Rubin a Grammy nod. But the Avett’s were going to grow up sometime, best to be in Rubin’s ultra-capable hands. And maybe the band have grown into a different audience or demographic. The question then becomes whether The Carpenter is good enough to get the audience that got The Avett Brothers here to keep traveling the road with them. The bandwagons about to get a lot more crowded, and The Carpenter is divisively overt enough to give past fans just enough pause to get off before the Avett’s play their first stadium shows.
The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter Tracklist
- “The Once and Future Carpenter”
- “Live and Die”
- “Winter in My Heart”
- “Pretty Girl From Michigan”
- “I Never Knew You”
- “February Seven”
- “Through My Prayers”
- “Down With the Shine”
- “A Father’s First Spring”
- “Paul Newman vs. The Demons”