Last month, the Avett Brothers popped up on my TV performing their newest single, “Live and Die.” Clasping my hands together with joy, I marveled about how adorable they looked together, how great they sounded, how much I loved that dang banjo. I was floating on an Avett-lined cloud for a solid thirty seconds – until three little letters engulfed me in a bleak wave of khaki.
It was a Gap ad.
I didn’t even know Gap still existed. I thought they gave up mass producing jean jackets somewhere back in the late nineties. My euphoria was abruptly replaced with some kind of bewildered angst and I soon found myself proceeding through the five stages of grief.
Denial. That’s not really them. Maybe it’s Ashton Kutcher.
Anger. Why have these Mom-jean peddlers returned from the outdated oblivion?!
Bargaining. Please God, take Mumford instead!
Depression. I’ll never love again. not I. not You.
Now, the fifth stage took a little longer, as I chose to wallow in obstinate disgust for several days.
Coincidentally, along came The Carpenter…
It really couldn’t be a more telling title. Since partnering with producer Rick Rubin on I and Love and You, all of their rough edges have effectively been sanded down into a commercially viable pop-rock package. Their trademark instrument, used to craft a foundation and a following, has been almost entirely replaced with shiny new tools: an electric guitar, delicate strings and catchy piano riffs.
Regardless, the Brothers’ seventh album gets off to a promising start with “The Once and Future Carpenter” and “Live and Die,” both of which prove that their lyrical prowess is still alive and well. The banjo makes a glorious, albeit softer, cameo – Scott Avett isn’t hacking away Deliverance-style, but I’ll take what I can get. The latter tune signals the first appearance of serious thematic elements within the album, influenced largely by bassist Bob Crawford’s two-year-old daughter’s cancer diagnosis.
It’s really not until the third track that everything goes a tad sour. A somber ballad lacking any energy or direction, “Winter in My Heart” wanders aimlessly through what I think is some kind of breakup (my attention span…is too short…to connect…anything…he’s singing…into any real….substance).
Then there’s the most recent installment in the “Pretty Girl From…” series. Hailing from Michigan, it’s the most blatant example of their transformation – as it neither resembles nor lives up to its predecessors. It does pick up the pace and would be a likeable enough song had it not carried with it such heavy expectations from glory days past.
“I Never Knew You” is a playful, bouncy track with contrastingly vulnerable lyrics – Well I guess it’s kind of funny how I loved you so way back when. You say I wouldn’t know you now, well I didn’t even know you then. Full of delicious harmonies, it showcases the benefits of their newly polished sound. “February Seven” and “Down With the Shine” also grandly reignite hope in my heart – only to be unfortunately extinguished by the disproportionately abrasive “Paul Newman vs the Demons.” The heavy texture and overbearing electric guitar are inorganic and messy, not to mention blatantly misplaced on this album.
Last, but light-years away from least, the twelve tracks culminate with the stunning “Life.” Delicately delving back into the deeper themes addressed in “Through My Prayers” and “Live and Die,” it erases every bit of bad taste from its precursor and yanks ferociously at the listener’s heartstrings.
Ultimately, the stark contrast between The Carpenter and everything quintessentially Avett detracts from the beauty of this album in its own right. Long-time fans are too busy mourning the obvious losses to reasonably enjoy what traces of their original greatness still remain – and appreciate the good in what’s changed.
The Gap ad was a glaring testament to the general-population-pleasing direction the Brothers’ are headed towards – but it’s not entirely a bad thing. Large scale success doesn’t come without change, without growth and maturity. The Avett Brothers simply may never again be the gritty, quirky group they once were.
Alas, there’s my final stage – Acceptance.