When the words “true sadness” are placed together, the ideas conjured in individual minds take different, yet equally heart-wrenching forms: despair, lost love, somber melodies. With their latest effort, The Avett Brothers produce an intriguing interpretation for such a strong term, molding sadness into something more palatable, and a little less brooding.
Avett Brothers’ music has proven to follow a predictable formula: riveting Americana ballads, lyrics that weave intricate stories, and old-timey harmonies and instrumentation that lend themselves to a time that has long passed and been reborn from the ashes. On True Sadness, the familial duo of Seth and Scott Avett hold steadfast to that identity they’ve deliberately constructed, yet augment their sound with new twists and turns. These shifts are more than welcome. Although the album’s cadence glides from genre to genre, the continuity remains within poetic lyrics and tales that can be returned to for years to come.
“Ain’t No Man” begins the album with a blues vibe. Strong and commanding, it subverts the sadness the title promises. The following songs, however, voyage down that mercurial path. On “No Hard Feelings”, the group grapples with themes of life and death. “When my body won’t hold me anymore/ And it finally lets me free/ Will I be ready?” they ask. The Avetts assess the breadth of life with a refreshing candor, from accomplishments to tangible possessions, all as instrumental layers build.
Decades ago, a booming ballad like “Satan Pulls the Strings” would have featured singers circled around, crooning over acoustic guitar and maybe some light percussion. In this new version of Avett Brothers, the song rides on rollicking guitar lines and submerged banjo, the vocals booming rather than crooning. On the title track showcases major key calypso tones, all while discussing alcoholism, depression, and nightmares. Here, they dissolve the notion that sad lyrics need to accompany sad melodies. Lush, upbeat backdrops accompany despondent statements and haunting refrains. It’s in this juxtaposition where The Avett Brothers continue their reign in the world of folk music and establish their continued growth.
Eventually, the happy-sad fusion fades, and we return to The Avett Brothers sound that originally drew us in beginning with on “I Wish I Was”. Acoustic guitar melodies accompany those age-old Avett Brothers vocals, but it’s not an unwelcome turn of events. The breathtaking “Fisher Road to Hollywood” offers an intimate glimpse into their path from fledgling artists to acclaimed musicians. We learn their low points, the behind-the-scenes snapshots, the arduous moments that come amidst the glory. Identities were forged and changed, and senses of self were lost, though this was the path they needed to take. The album takes a sobering turn, giving “true sadness” its intended meaning.
As the album winds to a close, the Avetts keep tossing out little surprises. “Divorce Separation Blues” deploys yodeling and island motifs that add flair to the traditional country Western feel. On “May it Last”, a sweeping orchestra rounds out the ballad, closing out the album in the most welcome of ways. Lilting codas and frenetic melodies end with a pristine string outro. Not all of the innovation turns out well; the trite “You are Mine” drones on space rock sounds that obscure the melodies themselves. “Smithsonian” brings back their musical whimsy and beaming, incessantly positive lyrics.
So, what is “true sadness” after all? It clearly doesn’t have to mean constant upheaval. The struggle ripens us, prepares us for the sweeter melodies that arise, and it’s in this moment of reckoning that this album becomes symbolic. With True Sadness, The Avett Brothers open up to their audience, sharing their dark depths with tenacity and bravado, all while inspiring to see struggles as strength.
Essential Tracks: “True Sadness”, “Fisher Road to Hollywood”