Above the door to the Magic Theatre in Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, the protagonist finds himself beneath a sign that reads “Entrance Not For Everybody.” The same could be said of The Avett Brothers‘ new album The Carpenter, their second Rick Rubin-helmed, major-label effort. Indeed, their seventh full-length is moody, indulgent and unaffected, a hopeful and jaded record that, though often beautiful, is sometimes sullenly unable to get out of its own way. That’s strange, especially since their last album, 2009’s American Recordings debut, I and Love and You, could’ve been called “Mainstream Here We Come.”

For years, The Avett Brothers have played at poignancy and pathos. Life’s iniquity recently hit them full-force, when bassist Bob Crawford’s 2-year old daughter, Hallie, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Overnight, their frivolous wonder and down-home philosophizing seemed glib and trite in relation to reality. Gloomy and uncertain, the resultant album likely will not deter veteran fans, but it is unlikely to further the last record’s commercial inroads. This is, for all intents and purposes, The Avett Brothers’ Pinkerton.

The disappointment lies less in the album itself than its relation to the band’s recent trajectory. They made dramatic leaps forward in both sonics and songwriting on 2007’s Emotionalism and on I and Love and You. The harmonies have grown richer, as have the arrangements, though the band still retained its innocent joy and undeniable earnestness. On The Carpenter, that richness grows claustrophobic in its many minor key moments, while the élan surrenders to doubt and self-analysis that is never brushed away by the gleam of youth.

The consequent pall manifests itself mostly in musical torpor. The songs wander down the runway but rarely generate enough momentum (or assurance) to take off. Instead they cut elegant figure eights, too aware of an inevitable crash to take the risk, especially on the moribund “Winter in My Heart” or the downbeat folk lullaby “February Seven.” Even the latest in their lineage of female dedications, “Pretty Girl From Michigan,” goes from rockabilly rave-up to maudlin, string-laden Leonard Cohen in the break.

That said, their chops and songcraft continue to progress. Recently added drummer Jacob Edwards sounds right at home, while the mix balances the varied instruments as well as anything they’ve ever done. Similarly, some of the left-field explorations prove remarkably welcome, most notably the surreal soft rock-meets-psychedelics rumble of “Paul Newman vs. the Demons.”

And no matter how the album itself turns out, it seems that the Avetts cannot write a dozen songs without landing a few heart-stopping hits. It’s emblematic of the record’s circumspect nature that two of the best come during the last third. “Down With the Shine” is a touching farewell to youth and its endless pursuit. “It’s the most predictable story told,” Scott Avett sings. “In with the young and out with the old.” Horns swell mournfully as the banjo traces its unsteady way. Meanwhile, the piano-driven “I Never Knew You” is more irresistible than a cold, with its barrelhouse bounce suggesting a latter-day “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”

The Carpenter closes with the straightforward ballad “Life.” It is a showcase of what The Avetts do bestmake tender music whose beauty and honesty serve as immediate transmitters. Seth Avett acknowledges the world’s trials simply: “Wouldn’t it be fine to stand behind the words we say in the best of times?”

This is an album rife with loss and searching. It doesn’t aim to reassure because it doesn’t hold much certain itself. It seems more authentic than much of the Avetts’ previous material, but it’s also less immediately engaging. It’s not an album for everyone, then, but music never really is for everybody. It’s for those who get it, or for those who see that there never really was a door in the way to begin with.

Label: American Recordings/Universal Republic

This article appeared in print with the headline “Big four.”