One worries about The Avett Brothers. If half of the tales the North Carolina trio of brothers–Scott and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford–have spun since their 2002 debut are true, their lives hitherto have been highly debauched, temporarily delightful and regularly depressed soap operas lined with episodic accounts of feminine paramours worth loving and leaving instantly, all across the world. Let’s recount: There’s been “The New Love Song” (repeat daily; say it with conviction), there have been girls named Jenny and Melody Anne (wave goodbye), and girls from Matthews, Locust, Annapolis, Raleigh and Cedar Lane (traveling songs equal love songs). Finally, they’ve stopped brushing their shoulders off.
Even if half of the diary-like entries about the frustrations of love that line the Avetts discography aren’t true, they still manage to render some of the most convincing and compelling evidence today that life and all of its laymen requisites–love, lust, separation, sex, death, damnation and (if you’re a lucky dog) redemption–are one enduring trial by fire. The proof has never sounded as good as it does on their fourth studio album, Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions.
Hitherto, some complained it was simplistic, condescending music, that the Avetts shouted every word because they had little to say. Others griped that the band only sang about girls, getting some and going away. Early fans, however, worried that, if the trio’s sound evolved to meet those two critiques, it would come at the peril of the band’s signature sound: frenetic, raucous punk-rock ballads spewed, spat and steaming from three mouths, an acoustic guitar, a banjo, an upright bass and foot-stomp percussion. Four Thieves Gone triumphs because it is a non-compromise panacea for virtually all of those critics.
The case in point here is “Pretend Love,” a pristine ballad that stays true to their instrumental creed, as an acoustic guitar leads a tale of Scott rescinding on his earlier implied vows of love: “Don’t you know, I’ve a gift and I’ve wrapped it in truth?/ But the gift’s not for you.” It’s delicate, two-part, doo-wop oohs cooing in the background, painfully augmenting an irony as the narrator lets her down hard. Electric guitars and a violin slink and moan in the background. It’s written to foreshadow the fall, and the collapse is delivered perfectly.
Here, the Avetts strengthen their songwriting, making good on things that once were only superfluous thoughts in their work: “Sixteen in July” finds the newly licensed teenager burning on freedom; “A Girl from Feltre,” “Distraction #74” and “The Lowering” register with alternate or simultaneous nostalgia and regret; “40 East,” “Matrimony” and “November Blue Denounced” find contentment in giving up transient crushes for real love (Scott is married, Bob is engaged). The Avetts no longer write like simpletons looking for quick laughs at their old baggage; characters and sense of self are now highly evolved. There’s pathos, not just stories and jokes. The Avett Brothers now seem capable of singing about armchair self-analysis and making it resonate.
For the mantra of a band with a chance to be a phenomenon, see what should be your, my and their anthem, “Color Show,” a life-affirming, piano-and-guitar stomper that encapsulates the confidence and self-awareness with which they now approach their work: “First a whisper, then it grows.”
Don’t worry so much: These Carolina kids are all right.
The Avett Brothers play a sold-out show with the everybodyfields at Cat’s Cradle on Friday, March 3. They play again at the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, April 29.