We published our review of the Avett Brothers’ new record ‘Closer Than Together’ yesterday which it’s fair to say isn’t going to be on our writer Steven Rafferty’s albums of the year list. As an editor, it gave me palpitations as it’s (spoiler alert) absolutely one of mine. Rather than throw my toys out of the pram, Steven and I have exchanged emails on the record. This is how our discussion went.
Mark: “I hardly ever do this (I honestly can’t remember the last time tbh) but occasionally review scores for better-known artists can appear overly harsh and in trying to ensure some consistency, I wanted to talk to you about the Avett Brothers. I’ll be honest and say it’s probably going to be my album of the year and am trying not to let that cloud my judgement! But 5 is a low score by the standards of what is usually awarded a 5 on AUK and tends to reflect an album that’s a bit of a disaster, which I think is too damning for a work of this calibre. I acknowledge that all reviews are subjective and that one man’s meat is another man’s poison etc. but I think the record at least tried to tackle some issues which US artists can’t avoid at the moment if they’re going to be relevant. I have read a few reviews of the album so far from other outlets and one of them in Paste pointed out that you either take the mission statement at its word, or you think they’re cynically trying to avoid confrontation – but then the lyrics admittedly aren’t subtle at all so I think their intention is genuine.
All that besides, I think I feel a bit defensive of the Avetts because they have taken a lot of grief from Trump supporters for their record (just look at the Amazon.com reviews), and I almost feel not making a political record in these times is negligent for want of a better word, so I feel uncomfortable with us criticising someone for it. AUK might have problems with various artists musically but I feel like we should probably support their politics if they’re trying to fight the good fight.”
Steven: “I’ll be honest, I agonized over it for the better part of a week trying to decide what to say and how to say it. I didn’t look at the Amazon reviews until just now but it does offer a handy microcosm of the issues that I was struggling with. In general, I support the political statements that are made on the album. I’m not at all comfortable with the idea that my review could be misinterpreted as sympathizing with the most nakedly political reviews on Amazon –not at all. But I tend to agree with the assessments of the music, even if it is for different reasons. I do think that (with the exception of track #1) the album feels contrived. I don’t dislike the album because it’s political or because of its politics. I dislike it because I didn’t think it was very good. The ham-handedness of their attempt to “be political” and the silliness of the letter only served to draw attention to what I found to be the weakest points of a generally lacklustre listen.
That being said, I find it interesting that we’re so far apart in our opinions of the album. I’m glad you made a point of bringing that up in your note. It made me reconsider my assessment more carefully. I agree that 5 is a very low ranking. I think I rated the album this low because I was hearing it all in relation to the “mission statement”. I’m not sure if I can shut the letter out now that it’s part of the equation.
As I go back over your note and type my response, it occurs to me that the struggles I had with this album are a lot like the struggles that progressive resistance in American politics faces right now. Is infighting an inadvertent boost to the opposition? Is it more important to work out issues than to appear unified at all times? I guess I keep coming back to the question of why everything about the album rang so tinny in my ears.
To draw a comparison, Jason Isbell and BJ Barham have acknowledged seeing the same divisions within their audiences at shows. But when Jason Isbell puts ‘White Mans World’ on ‘Nashville Sound’, things unfold much differently. He doesn’t feel the need to call attention to it (either to offer a prophylactic apology or to make sure folks know what he did). His audience doesn’t split down the middle over the song the way the Avett’s audience has. Is it because the work was just done to a higher standard in Isbell’s case? I don’t think it’s because the divisions were less severe a year or two ago than they are now – though I could be wrong.”
Mark: “I take all your points Steven and I think maybe part of this does come down to the fact that I think that not even touching on the politics it’s musically an excellent record and up there with the best they’ve recorded – perhaps a bit braver than its predecessor in terms of its experimentation. ‘Tell the Truth’ for example, one of the less obviously issue-based songs on the record, has one of the sweetest melodies I’ve heard all year, and the arrangement sounds just wonderful. I do wonder though whether because the Avetts are, for me, kind of “poppier” than the likes of Isbell or BJ Barham that there’s something about their music which generates a kind of distance with the americana crowd, like they’re somehow not authentic and that their message too gets caught up in that. The mission statement as it were could easily be an entirely legitimate defence mechanism.
For me, I don’t really find it to be a divisive album – songs like ‘We Americans’ from their very title are all inclusive and lyrically accepts that, in the case of that particular track, “the story is complicated and hard to read”. I think the imagery too is sometimes as poetic as anything I’ve heard from Isbell – “Blood in the soil with the cotton and tobacco” is a line that sticks in my mind. It’s funny because one of my least favourite US TV shows that I’ve ever watched is ‘This is Us’ because it’s so obvious and cloying, so I do get how laying it on thick can be offputting, but I felt optimistic for the US after hearing the record. Every time an artist gives a shit, maybe an angel doesn’t get its wings, but it does leave me feeling like the world is not quite such a grim place.
Steven: I definitely agree that the Avetts are on the ‘poppier’ end of the spectrum of music that we cover on AUK. That being said, I try really hard to approach everything that I review with an open mind and to judge it on its own merits. I even felt a little bit uncomfortable drawing the comparisons to Isbell and American Aquarium because I don’t think that it’s fair to any of them to compare them to each other.
‘We Americans’ is actually a great example of how and why I found it hard to like the album. When I listen to that song, I hear the lyrical content and the musical compliment diverging so sharply that it’s almost like I can hear the tearing of the seams that hold them together. There are other songs that felt like there was a disconnect (at least to my ears) but ‘We Americans’ is probably the clearest example.
Just to be clear, I’m not accusing the Avetts of intentionally making a divisive album. I don’t think it’s divisive in its production – I was commenting on its reception. I don’t think it says anything about the album one way or the other to point out that there are people in their crowd who are the kind of people who would write the kind of reviews that we’re seeing on Amazon. I definitely don’t think it’s okay to play the “shut up and dribble” card and I hope that my review doesn’t come off as leaning that direction. I just don’t feel comfortable pumping the album up over our shared political sensibilities when the tunes left me feeling pretty underwhelmed.
What an interesting conversation (albeit electronically) went on at AUK Towers yesterday.
Steven – I have to confess that I was also slightly taken aback by your review the previous day, but totally respect your opinion (and of course your absolute right to hold it). After all, isn’t this precisely what makes this wonderful musical journey, that we’re all travelling upon together, so damned good!
Mark – I think you and I probably both firmly reside in the same camp pertaining to all matters Avett. Although a dyed in the wool fan, even I have to admit that their output over the years has at times been somewhat sketchy. However, leaving aside the question of whether they slot into the Americana or pop genre, there’s no denying the fact that they’ve written some pretty good melodies and lyrics. Indeed, if there’s a better song that’s ever been written on the theme of familial love than Murder In The City’, then somebody please point me in the right direction? As a son, a brother, and a father myself, that killer line “always remember there was nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name” still brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye every single time I hear it.
Both – You’ll hear absolutely no dissent from me about the genius of Messrs Isbell and Barham, so I suspect that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet really.
As a personal coda to this Avett Brothers thread, I still hold very fond memories of finding myself in the company of Scott beck in 2011, backstage at the Green Man Festival. He was thoroughly charming and engaging, and showed great interest in hearing what an old fella like me had to say on the topic of music. The fact that I was then invited onto their tour bus to hang out with the band, did absolutely nothing to destroy my admiration for the fundamentally important role that these guys play in the ‘big picture’!
Whatever else We Americans has something too say and does it with a slightly unorthodox lyrical construction – and for that I like it