Released June 24, 2016
The Avett Brothers have a sacred place in my heart. Emotionalism saved my life in a very non-hyperbolic way. I love this band. I love how within their discography I can find a song for any emotion I might be feeling—from celebration to lamentation, it’s all there. They have cemented their place in my musical history. The Avett Brothers have been endlessly important in my journey of crawling toward becoming an emotionally intelligent human.
That being said, True Sadness, the band’s ninth full-length record, strikes me as their least compelling work—though it is undeniably their most adventurous.
But let’s go back a bit. The Avett Brothers began working with the mythic producer, Rick Rubin on 2009’s I and Love and You. At that time, the Avetts were producing fairly standard folk rock. Their earliest works teetered more toward bluegrass and that rowdiness still streaked its way through Emotionalism and Mignonette. With Rubin’s assistance came a more polished, more focused version of their established sound. I and Love and You is the band’s most commercially successful record, and with good reason. It’s beautifully produced. It’s cohesive with enough variance to keep things interesting.
The track list for I and Love and You was significantly less than their previous LPs and with that paring down they were able to create a work that felt like it honed in on what was truly essential about their music. That record was musically beautiful and full of lyrics that were unapologetic in their sentimentality. It was fun and insightful and outward-looking. It felt like Rubin had provided the direction the Avett Brothers needed.
They have produced three studio albums with Rubin since then, and each one moves farther from that I and Love and You sound. Which is not inherently bad. Artists are allowed to evolve (even if I don’t strictly approve of the new direction (she types from her bedroom in central Indiana)). The Carpenter, Magpie and the Dandelion, and now True Sadness have seen the Avett Brothers heading, tentatively at first, toward a more rock-inflected, experimental sound. While this is new fare for their band, the brothers originally started off in a hardcore punk-rock project. So it would seem that they are moving almost circularly toward those earlier influences.
It’s just that with each new record the songs lose something. Maybe it’s that a high production value seems to lessen the sincerity of folk songs—I’d rather have a messy recording with heart over anything else. Maybe it’s that the themes that run through True Sadness aren’t as accessible to me as the Avett’s earlier works are. It’s true that I haven’t experienced divorce, devastating personal loss, or the unending march of time (I’m in my prime! So I’ve heard!). Maybe it’s that with nine full-length albums under their belts along with years of touring, the songs on this record strike me as a bit tired—even the electronic mess that is “Satan Pulls The Strings.”
A foray into electronic music (even this strange EDM/banjo hybrid) feels like an obvious choice for a band tired of doing folk. In cases where electronic elements are employed for the sake of “shaking things up,” it comes off as disingenuous—which is the last word I’d ever imagine using to describe the Avett Brothers on the whole. Songs like “I Wish I Was” and “Fisher Road to Hollywood” are more akin to earlier Avetts, but within the context of True Sadness, they don’t shine like they might have elsewhere.
I don’t think I could ever wholeheartedly dislike an Avett Brothers record. They are too precious to me. I probably won’t end up tattooing the cover of True Sadness onto me, but there are moments I do enjoy on the album. And if I’m looking at their music chronologically, the journey they have made from raucous and idealistic kids to world-weary, mature musicians is kind of beautiful. And if I’m also thinking about my growth in the period of time that I first heard I and Love and You and worked backwards in their catalog until right now, it makes sense that nothing will match their earlier works in importance for me. I don’t need them like I did back then. Which is also kind of beautiful.