THE AVETT BROTHERS: TRUE SADNESS (2016)
1) Ain't No Man; 2) Mama, I Don't Believe; 3) No Hard Feelings; 4) Smithsonian; 5) You Are Mine; 6) Satan Pulls The Strings; 7) True Sadness; 8) I Wish I Was; 9) Fisher Road To Hollywood; 10) Victims Of Life; 11) Divorce Separation Blues; 12) May It Last.
Sooner or later, the Flying Electronic Monster catches up with all of us — there may be times when not using synthesizers for your records is seen as a bold act of artistic defiance, and then there are times when not having a synthesizer on board is like going out on the street with no pants on. (Not that going out on the street without your pants on cannot be seen as a bold act of artistic defiance, but then, how many people around will really be able to tell if you intentionally left them at home or just forgot to put them on? Same with the synthesizers). Anyway, while Seth does use them sparingly, the very first track (ʽAin't No Manʼ) opens with the we-wiil-rock-you sound of a drum machine, and then electronics are all over ʽYou Are Mineʼ and all over ʽSatan Pulls The Stringsʼ and... uh... wait a minute... well, actually, I guess that is all.
Admittedly, the electronics work — Rick Rubin does a good job integrating them into the band's overall sound, and I can certainly understand them trying out something a little different from the usual mope-country sound (and there might be just a hint of jealousy here, at the relative success of The Black Keys doing the same thing). All of these three songs are good. ʽAin't No Manʼ is a catchy country-pop tune with a cute bassline, getting by solely on the energy of the rhythm section and the gospel-style backing vocals. ʽYou Are Mineʼ opens with a simple banjo line, but then quickly becomes techno-psychedelic, with multiple electronic layers over acoustic piano and vice versa — and some beautiful vocal harmonies, McCartney-style. Finally, ʽSatan Pulls The Stringsʼ is an experimental arrangement of a traditional tune, sort of a 50/50 merger between a country-blues and an acid techno track, which works because they choose some particularly evil-sounding synth tones, perfectly adequate for a robotic vision of Satan pulling the strings, I guess.
But never worry, these are just minor brushes across a canvas that largely stays the same — just because they dragged in a few extra chips and cables changes nothing about the fact that Scott and Seth Avett still behave as a pair of intelligent, heart-broken, world-weary farm hands who'd rather mess up their lives so they can sing about it than straighten these lives out because what fun is there with a straightened out life? The album's single most memorable tune is ʽSmithsonianʼ, which lays out their life philosophy as simply and straightforwardly as never before: "Call the Smithsonian, I've 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". Okay, so this really used to be their creed all along, but sometimes it helps to set aside the metaphors for a moment and just go for some blunt wording — and few people these days can spell out basic (but true) banalities with the same pleasantly nonchalance as the Avett Brothers.
Commenting on the soft acoustic ballads is an impossibility (they just sound like any other soft acoustic ballad ever written by these guys), but I was pleasantly surprised by the increased level of diversity — apart from the electronics, we have some really complex arrangements (on the title track, for instance, where choppy electric chords mingle with jangly acoustic picking, organs and strings), some Latin bounce (ʽVictims Of Lifeʼ with samba elements — should have invited Paul Simon on that one, as it sounds not entirely unlike ʽMe And Julioʼ), and a full-out Straussian waltz arrangement on the album closer ʽMay It Lastʼ that flows in and out of a baroque-pop construction, making this arguably their most complex studio creation up to date (a good structural analogy would be something like Buffalo Springfield's ʽBroken Arrowʼ); and the complexity is well deserved, since the song does end the album on a friendly note — sadness and melancholia, yes, but mixed with a note of support ("there is a sea, and I am your captain...").
On the whole, I could even call this «progress», if the notion did not sound so ridiculous when applied to the Avetts — who had always been perfectly happy to be the modern AC/DC of folk- and country-rock as long as they still thought they had something to say. So the sonic discoveries of True Sadness are not really an indication of the band expanding its horizons — most likely, they were just introduced so that they could not be accused of making a vain point out of sticking to the formula (the way Angus Young proudly asserts how they put out not 11, but 12 albums that sound the same). It's more like, hey, a synthesizer? A drum machine? Sure, why not — who the hell are we to say no? It's not like God ever told us to stick to guitar and banjo. It's an attitude that seems likeable, and reason enough to give the record a thumbs up, even if I probably will treat it in the future just like any other Avett Brothers album.
Oh, and, also for the record, I do like the idea of calling it True Sadness — few of these songs sound proverbially sad (as in, emotionally overdone and making you feel like you're standing in a salty puddle already), but they weave their little nets of personal dissatisfaction and trouble in oblique ways: a well-placed lyric here, a single chord change there, without wallowing in misery or throwing a fit. They can even get sad on something technically upbeat (ʽVictims Of Lifeʼ), and though they're far from the first artist to be able to do that, they just might be the first ones to draw attention to this through the very title of the album. Although in doing so, they bring back accusations of vanity — ain't it a little presumptious to insist that it is your record that represents «true sadness» and not, say, Conor Oberst's, or Bon Iver's? That's Satan pulling the strings for you, brothers...