Saturday, February 18, 2012
The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You (2009)
You wouldn't need to walk far in my home state to find someone who loves the Avett Brothers, nor much farther for someone who thinks the Avett Brothers were a great act who are now vicious sellouts, Rick Rubin major label monkeys, Dave Matthews Band openers. All this, especially the elements of it that trade in the "authenticity" so beloved to alt-country stalwarts, misses the entire appeal of this really rather wonderful band, whose greatest work is this polished, studio-centric, soft and safe Rubin creation. The thing is that theirs is adult music in every sense of the term, honest and romantic and fucked the hell up, and it lives in this secret place that you might find elusive until a certain point in your life. Doesn't matter if you're young or old or whatever's in between those elastic terms. At some point, you are going to know what it means when Seth says he hopes you won't think he's insane when he says there's darkness all around us, and that sometimes he needs her to protect him.
That line, the one about protection, is remarkable. That's the moment of shed-everything directness and wisdom that an entire difficult career has led to. The Avett Brothers have not been a flashing, sudden entity; over a lengthy series of albums, they've developed at times painfully slowly, primarily because it seems their interests are precise and specific: to distort nothing of their emotional signal, to bleed their hearts in as unadorned and unafraid a sense as possible. But beyond that, this is how bands used to be allowed to develop, and we've seen that even groups with limited economic prowess (the Walkmen, Yo La Tengo) can become something grander than imagined in initial incarnation. But alt-country is something different; it features some extraordinary bands (Old 97's are unquestionable; we'll save my perversely passionate feelings toward OCMS for another time), but it's an Attitude thing. Alt-country has no Leonard Cohen or Marvin Gaye willing to crawl on his knees for nothing beyond the sake of his own at times embarrassing feelings. The Avett Brothers are willing to lay all of that on the line, and this is one of a few reasons they don't fit the alt-country rubric. They're country musicians in the purest sense; they talk about January weddings and feelings of grownup malaise and vivid fear the way Hank Williams talked about jumping into lakes or getting choked up in church.
So I and Love and You, damn the haters, marks a major progression on everything they've done before. Emotionalism had been a great record with a few cuts stronger than anything on their Sony debut... but the cumulative effect and thematic intelligence of this LP eclipses it. Not designed for the hipster-cool or detached kitsch that has come to inform much of the alt-country cult, this is an extremely well-crafted pop album designed to inspire passion in people who will recognize its aching beauty.
And of course, aching beauty can be interpreted (and dismissed) as cheese; the mournful title track has strings made for a Starbucks night (it's not so ironic that Sony played up the coffeehouse NPR-country angle by cross-promoting the Avetts there), and "January Wedding" may be the corniest thing any artistically major rock band has put out with a straight face in the last several years. It's a calculated risk because it is conversely one of the most beautifully unaffected, fearless, and genuine. At times I think it's the best relationship song I know about; with no airs at all, it describes a love worth saving and doing battle for. Hardly a new subject for the Avett Brothers, but as on the rest of this album, the lyrics have such a thrilling clarity and humility it's difficult not to be moved long after you've become your neighborhood's love-song curmudgeon. It's too on the nose to be "This Must Be the Place," but we've not come so close in a long time.
Scott and Seth Avett trade lead vocals throughout the record; both have gradually become nuanced singers whose work brims with sadness and soul. They inject plenty of warmth into a series of atypically elaborate, rockist arrangements -- "Head Full of Doubt" gets its depth from the singing more even than its nostalgic piano, which also offsets more of the pronounced "darkness" (the band's word) that seems forever around the corner within these songs' inner lives. The yearning melody the pair brings to "Tin Man" helps to make the incongruous "full on" nature (with goofy Hollywood brass) of that song healthy until the uncomfortable hybrid itself becomes a center of appeal. And producer Rubin is all over material like "Slight Figure of Speech" whose connection to the Avetts' general material seems tenuous at best, but Rubin also brings out a perfect pop wisdom in something like "It Goes On and On" (more lovely piano rolling) and the absolutely brilliant "Kick Drum Heart," a mindbendingly blissful piece of driving determination, a preparation for some sort of liftoff that teases, only taking hold with a deliciously brief screaming climax before falling away back into the heartbeat shadows. What a kick in the ironists' teeth to hear a modern group devoting themselves so passionately to a classicist, minimalist but gloriously suggestive pop song. And not that it matters the first time, but the lyrics are again knocked out of the park. "It's not the chase that I love," goes the confession, "it's me, following you."
Of course, one thing that gets lost somewhere in here is nearly all semblance of country music. That isn't such a bad thing, nor an inappropriate thing when you consider how far afield Nashville country has gone at this point, but some will inevitably feel it's an example of compromise. The problem with that notion is that the most country-leaning tunes here tend to take the longest to ingratiate. A particular offender is the Scott Avett-led "Ten Thousand Words," a sort of twangy variation on the Sandals' "Theme from Endless Summer" that's almost painfully slow. It's too long and repetitive, but it works better on repeated exposure -- and it's redeemed entirely by the audaciously liberating bluegrass interlude that closes "Laundry Room," a later cut marked by its almost inhumane prettiness. And that of course is another leading trait to the Avetts' newer music. The soul pop "Ill with Want" has the rootsy firepower of Wilco or Lucinda Williams, other erstwhile country musicians, but along with piano showpiece "The Perfect Space," its initial appeal is based primarily on its delicate aesthetics -- in the most unfashionable adult contemporary sense, both songs sound cushy and instantly appealing.
That's reductive, of course, because those two cuts also nail the complex, advanced emotions the Avetts seek to capture here; every word of the smartly prescient rant in "The Perfect Space" about the sort of friends you wish you had will ring mortifyingly true to anyone who's spent time alone among pals, and "Ill with Want" has maybe the key sentence of the LP: "Something has me acting like someone I don't wanna be." Comparing the raw and naked lyrics with their delicate, proper arrangements is interesting and reaches back to no less than Pet Sounds, but that makes it more of a relief when "And It Spread," another ferocious cry against at all, allows for such glorious acoustic catharsis.
Since its release, at which point I had the feeling there was "something" about it, I and Love and You has deepened in importance for me. There's a lot of talk about American indie music (which this isn't, but it shares an audience profile) hitting the thirtysomething demographic and becoming the modern soundtrack of MOR romantic comedies and car commercials. But the Avett Brothers have reacted to advancement by learning how to speak directly to my age group; the young-marrieds, the new-parents, the still-singles, the still-confuseds. They approach it masterfully by suggesting a desperation to break out without really wanting to, a bleakness they're aware of but don't fully want to surrender to, a constantly looming specter of further aging and more yet met with both hope and apprehension. In another lovably direct song, Stephin Merritt called it "things we're all too young to know." Leonard Cohen, twenty years ago now, lifted his glass to "the awful truth, which you can't reveal to the ears of youth." The Avetts are incomplete and insecure, but they also would like us to be aware that the woman who protects them "knows which birds are singing, and the names of the trees where they're performing." In January they're getting married, and that small insignificant thing somehow means something in the only context they (and we) are really permitted to live with.