“The Avett Brothers will probably never make a sociopolitical record,” Seth Avett writes in a “mission statement” about his band’s new album Closer Than Together. “But if we did, it might sound something like this.”
What does that mean? Depending on how you read it, it could mean a few different things. The least generous interpretation is along these lines: “We made a sociopolitical record, but we’re afraid to call it that for fear of blowback that could damage our careers.”
But The Avett Brothers aren’t scared on Closer Than Together. If they were, they wouldn’t have included a sparsely-arranged song called “We Americans,” which touches on imperialism, slavery, racist laws and reparations and eloquently expresses the cognitive dissonance of living in (and loving) a country “built on stolen land with stolen people.” If they were scared, they might’ve thought twice before releasing the clunky and slightly funky “New Woman’s World,” which eagerly anticipates a brighter future for a world led by women, not men.
And they certainly would’ve left “Bang Bang” off the album. Built entirely out of piano, Seth Avett’s weary voice and a small string section, the song candidly confronts violent movies, the “good guy with a gun” myth and Seth’s own gun-totin’, Rambo-wannabe neighbors in a gentle but bluntly-worded call for a world with less violence. “Conceal and carry your fear / Don’t need no weapons here,” he sings in the song’s bridge as the strings swell. “I’ve had all I can stand of the bloodthirsty leading man.”
Any or all of the tunes referenced above will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers among fans of The Avett Brothers, who started in rural North Carolina and continue to make music that’s unmistakably Southern. But that didn’t stop the band from putting them on their new album and dealing with the consequences. In a world where many country stars stay silent on political topics because it’s good business, the Avetts deserve credit for that.
So why deny that Closer Than Together is a sociopolitical album? Perhaps because the rest of the record gets back to the band’s tried and true formula: singing sad and sweet folk songs that explore the peaks and pitfalls of the human condition. Love, loneliness, truth, failure, faith and redemption—this is traditionally the stuff of Avett Brothers songs. “All heart, no brains / That’s me,” Scott Avett sings on “Better Here,” one of the album’s many piano-and-strings ballads. That about sums it up.
The band takes chances on those songs, too, but in the sonics, not the topics. Closer Than Together kicks off with “Bleeding White,” which is powered by a well-worn electric guitar riff that sounds more like Green Day than bluegrass. The spine of lead single “High Steppin’” is a pulsing synthesizer part that does nothing to soften the song’s battering ram feel. Spoken word passages pop up in multiple places, and Closer Than Together finds the Avetts using the piano as a foundational sound much more than on previous works.
But Closer Than Together’s best moments are those that play to The Avett Brothers’ long-established strengths. “Tell The Truth” is a simple folk song that revolves around strummed acoustic guitar, honeyed vocal harmonies and a sensible principle: Tell the truth to yourself and the rest will fall in place. And “Locked Up” expertly fuses the band’s folk-punk past with its baroque pop present, resulting in an arena-ready anthem of dad-rockin’ restlessness.
Ultimately, however, those high points feel scattered among a patchwork of pillowy piano tunes, conspicuous genre experiments and politically charged trial balloons. There are good things and not-so-good things here, but there is no cohesion in the overall work. Closer Than Together doesn’t hang together as a whole.
Perhaps that gets at the true meaning of Seth Avett’s mission statement for the album—something like: “We recorded some sociopolitical songs but didn’t want to commit to making a sociopolitical record.” Next time, they should just go for it. Or don’t. But at least pick a direction.