Photo by conc.art
Seth Avett faces a mic in a recording studio, calmly strumming his guitar, sharing some early ideas he has for a new song. His brother, Scott, sits nearby with his eyes closed listening intently to the melody. The Avett Brothers, as they’re befittingly known to the masses, are crafting what would become the band’s 2016 album, True Sadness.
Scott’s shut eyes and closed body language indicate he’s entered another world; as if he’s recording his brother’s strums onto a track in his own mind so that when he starts scribbling down words in the notebook on his lap, the forces of lyric and song will meet in a cosmic collision.
Seth’s initial idea for the tune is to convey the burdens and hesitations of love; the desire to be in someone’s everyday without getting in their way, to keep at a safe distance our true and messy selves, to be seen but still safely hidden. He asks the question: can we preserve enchantment while living in it authentically? And should we, even if we could?
The brothers casually discuss some contextual strengths of the song’s lyrical structure while unknowingly unraveling its actual concept. Seth notes the song’s generous display of metaphor – in it, he’s a flame, he’s a tune, he’s a sweater, items through which he explores ways of being in someone’s life without the strain of that pesky, destructive, fallible humanness. For balance, he asks to bring some reality to the words. Scott riffs a bit and helps his brother find a path to that reality by reflecting you’re not a sweater, you’re something better. Then Seth realizes the song itself is a letter. It’s as if they even think in rhymes.
The whole concept is solidified when Scott, with a growing smile, offers off-the-cuff the song’s closing words, “I love you, I’m sorry.” Distinctly able to embody the ache in his brother’s originating sentiment, Scott explains “you’re like apologizing for — I’m sorry I love you because I’m so drawn in. And it ends like that.” Seth replies calmly yet joyfully “it’s great.”
The song they just crafted, “I Wish I Was,” is the eighth track on True Sadness, and we witness its conception in their 2018 Apatow-produced HBO documentary “May It Last.” Although it’s likely that film editing truncated, to some degree, the time lapse of these events, it seems lyrics simply come out of thin air for these sibling songwriters and I watch their ease with incredible envy. Kinship is a helluva drug.
Avett experts will say this True Sadness offering is the group’s official passage into pop music. Making it difficult to argue is the fact that the album produced the band’s first song, “Ain’t No Man,” to top a Billboard chart after nearly 20-years of music.
As an Avett n00b, myself, I’m immune to the ridicule the band has received about high-powered, over-instrumented tracks on the album such as “You Are Mine,” “Satan,” and the admittedly confused “May It Last.” Instead I keep my attention on the brothers’ more vulnerable contributions which are powerful in their quest for truth. Personally, in the grand scheme, the timing of True Sadness seems meaningful. According to a 2009 email I wrote to my sister in which I described the Avett Brothers as “kind of annoying after a while. I think it’s the guy’s voice or the maybe long, downtrodden way in which he sings,” I wasn’t ready then. I seem to be now.
True Sadness offers a variety of sound and sensibility. “Ain’t No Man” takes a folkish “We Will Rock You” stance on being unresponsive to negativity, making it some kind of anthem for individuation and self-reliance. “No Hard Feelings” is a stinging search for answers about death; if one could ever be ready for such a thing, feeling the abandonment of physical body, making peace with a life lived for better or worse, parting with all that’s left behind, and a delicate curiosity for what comes next. The song’s title track uses cheerful guitar chords and a poppy drum beat to paint a bleak portrait of the current human condition and how to reckon with it (just take the time to look for it, I guess).
The Avett Brothers, which as a musical act also includes Bob Crawford (bass) and Joe Kwon (cello), is a folk band which embodies Americana, bluegrass, and sometimes, especially in their sporadic blips of all-too-literal (and dare I say cheesy) lyricism (sorry, “Smithsonian”), the basic principles of country music. On True Sadness, the balance between sorrow and salvation may never in fact be found, but in the mere attempt we are asked to stare back at our most sacred and frightening inner experiences, the ones we don’t want to see but ought to. Having the brothers guide us there with soothing harmonies, self-forgiveness, and solidarity is as close a thing to therapy as I can think of.