On their most recent Rick Rubin-produced album Closer Than Together, The Avett Brothers expressed their discontent for violence in the media, made a call for gun control (sort of), asked God to forgive America for our innumerable malfeasances and tried their hand at a real feminist anthem. While we know their intentions were good and true, these paltry plays at incorporating liberal politics into their increasingly pop-forward brand of nu-folk music did not necessarily go well for them.
But their musings on the bleak state of the world and American politics sound much less strained on The Third Gleam, their 10th studio album and the highly anticipated (at least among fans) third installment in the Gleam series, which, in its first two iterations released in 2006 and 2008, respectively, brought us beauties like “If It’s The Beaches” and Avett classics like “Souls Like The Wheels.” While The Avett Brothers lineup typically consists of a robust group of players including fiddler Tania Elizabeth and cellist Joe Kwon, The Third Gleam finds Scott and Seth Avett playing in a paired-down trio with longtime bassist Bob Crawford. This lineup more closely resembles the band in its early days, when Scott, Seth and Bob played their bombastic country-rock songs in grimey venues across the Southeast. If you’ve spent any time watching old Avett sets, you’ll know they were akin to a punk show.
But The Third Gleam is not a record of punk songs (like those Scott and Seth might’ve played in their first band in the early 2000s, a punk rock group called Nemo) or country-rock rambles. These eight songs are simple folk ditties dealing with themes The Avett Brothers have returned to again and again: spirituality, family and romantic tenderness. They also focus on living simply, and it just so happens that the sonic elements are simple, too, unlike their last three or four albums which, with help from Rubin, implement an array of pop production elements to varying degrees of success. On The Third Gleam, The Avett Brothers take a step back from all that gloss and shine and just focus on the songwriting, the harmonies and the dynamic between three musicians in a room. Hearing The Third Gleam is like stepping into a sunny, peaceful clearing after hours of running through the woods.
The “Untitled 4” track is fittingly the thematic and sonic center of The Third Gleam. The message is “less is more,” and while Scott and Seth may have been exploring that idea throughout Closer Than Together, too (i.e. disavowing action movies and media violence on “Bang Bang”), their message is clearer on “Untitled 4” because it’s more personal. “I don’t need to leave this small town / It don’t matter where I’m at,” they sing. “I finally learned what I need to know / I’m happier with nothing.” Scott and Seth still live in Concord, N.C., outside Charlotte, and based on images from their 2017 documentary May It Last, their homes are secluded. They’re happy where they are, and that admission of contentment is powerful.
They mention gun violence again on “I Should’ve Spent The Day With My Family,” and here, too, the political message is stronger because Scott and Seth use personal anecdotes as opposed to expressing broad, non-specific dissatisfaction. “Turning on my phone / was the first mistake I made / my heart sunk when I read the first headline,” Seth sings, sounding genuinely exhausted. “There had been another shooting / and this time not too far away / and a child who lost his life / looked an awful lot like mine.” When Scott and Seth, both parents, look to their families for inspiration, they write with such palpable empathy.
“Back Into The Light,” the last single released ahead of the album, finds Scott and Seth twirling humor (their description of “bald dads” in the carpool line, namely) together with more grave notions of what it means to be happy. “Sometimes I don’t see love in anything,” they sing. “And just when I surrender to my shadow, / I snap out of it / I step into the light.” However, the familiar cringe of Closer Than Together’s worst moments still finds its way into The Third Gleam’s vessels, particularly on “Women Like You,” which comes across as rather demeaning, despite its most sincere efforts to appear complimentary (“You’re modest enough to not strut your stuff / but confident enough to know you got it” feels restrictive, at least to this woman).
The record concludes with “The Fire,” a sweeping six-minute epic whose structure bears resemblance to stanzas you might hear in a hymn and whose themes reach for C.S. Lewis’ kind of mystical Christian theology. As on the jauntier “Prison To Heaven,” Scott and Seth ponder images of heaven and wonder if the real hell is life on Earth. Some of the band’s best songs are about death or the afterlife (“No Hard Feelings,” for example), and “The Fire” is another instance where The Avett Brothers’ complicated feelings about spirituality make for a thought-provoking musical experience.
The Third Gleam sonically resembles the old Avett Brothers: a guitar, a bass and the occasional backup banjo. But, like so many albums released in 2020, its lyrics have a distinctly timely approach to the fundamental tragedies our nation and world are facing at the moment. Scott and Seth aren’t fortune tellers—they didn’t know they’d be releasing The Third Gleam amid a pandemic and long-overdue racial reckoning. But the timing does feel serendipitous, and they sum this phenomenon up better than I ever could:
“This is by no means a record defined by any specific social or cultural goal, nor is it informed by a singular challenge posed to humanity,” Scott and Seth wrote in a press release. “It is merely the sound of my brother and I in a room, singing about what is on our minds and in our hearts at the time…sharing it now is about what sharing art is always about: another chance that we may partake in connecting with our brothers and sisters of this world, and hopefully joining you in noticing a speck of light gleaming in what appears to be a relatively long and dark night.”
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.