The Avett Brothers: “I and Love and You”
Let’s start by dispensing with the inevitable outrage: Though the Avett Brothers have largely swapped their banjos for pounding pianos and replaced their laid-back ballads and string-band hootenanies with string-drenched pop– and though they recorded new album I and Love and You with slick producer Rick Rubin after signing to their first major label– the one thing they haven’t done is sell out. Yes, the album is polished and poppy, and some fans are destined to hate it, but there’s nothing calculated about this music, and there’s not one iota of pretense. If the Avetts were changing things up for the sake of mainstream appeal, that would be one thing, but in truth, they’ve never been truer to themselves: I and Love and You finds the brothers at their most unabashedly Avett-y.
Admittedly, they’ve always been a bit hard to pin down. Because of their foundation in banjos, upright bass, and acoustic guitars, and their reputation for explosive on-stage hoe-downs, the North Carolina trio has sometimes been pegged, largely erroneously, as a bluegrass band, a claim that at best muddies the truth and at worst misses it altogether; aside from the instruments, the occasional old-timey jam session, and the high and lonesome harmonies, there’s nothing particularly rural or old-fashioned about these guys, a thoroughly modern band with thoroughly old-fashioned values, musicians who love writing songs about their feelings and enjoy a good corny joke, who grew up listening to classic rock and write songs like the Beatles, even if they play them on mountain music instruments.
I and Love and You continues what the group started on Emotionalism: It doesn’t change the fundamental nature of their music, but clarifies it, brings it to the fore. So sure, Rubin strips away some of their mountain music trappings, but only to illustrate that they’ve never really been a mountain music band. Those influences aren’t completely gone by any means– the banjos are largely absent, but there’s still plenty of upright bass, and “Laundry Room” concludes with one of their best recorded jam sessions, even if it’s under half a minute long– but for the most part, the old-timey bluegrass influences are less a matter of sound and more a matter of attitude, evident not in the arrangements so much as the goofball humor, the good-old-boy sincerity, the pervading sense that these are good-hearted guys making music of simple virtue and earnestness.
So if these sound like the poppiest songs the Avetts have ever recorded, that’s somewhat true, but it’s not because they’re acting like something they’re not, but because they’re following their instincts and allowing their music to grow and mature in the direction it’s always been headed in. For anyone who heard Emotionalism, which maintained the group’s acoustic instrumental palette even as it found them writing songs in a more pop- and rock-influences vein, there’s nothing too surprising about the perky, McCartney-esque piano pop of “Kick Drum Heart,” or the wistful, quietly anthemic lilt of “The Perfect Space,” or even the melancholy balladry of the title song. There are some surprises here– like the rollicking surf-rock of “Slight Figure of Speech”– but they feel like logical extensions of the Avetts’ sound, while some of the more familiar-sounding material, like the acoustic ballad “Ten Thousand Words,” are updated to fit within this new, broader context, with subtle hints of organ or strings in the background.
It would be easy, at least initially, to pin all of these new developments on Rubin, but his influence here is hardly meddlesome; not only does this sound like the album the Avetts have been wanting to make all along, but beneath the slicked-up arrangements lie songs that are quintessentially Avett. These are the same guys, after all, who titled their last album Emotionalism, and their unflagging sincerity permeates every note of this music. They still sing about their feelings, comparing themselves to the Wizard of Oz tin man and singing lines like “I lost my fear in your arms/ I lost my tears in your car” with total, straight-faced commitment. They do have a sense of humor, but it’s the kind that you’d classify as “cute” as opposed to “hilarious.” The songs actually explore some dark thematic areas– it’s an album about love, of course, but a dark side of love, with want and obsession being common motifs– but because the Avetts make such endearingly straight-laced, old-fashioned metaphors and keep everything so earnest and rooted in heart-on-sleeve emotion, the album doesn’t feel dark or depressing, just very serious.
And they do take this music– though not necessarily themselves– very seriously, which occasionally makes the album a little grating, but mostly makes it lovable. Certainly, there’s little doubt that this is the record they wanted to make, and that it reflects who they are as musicians and songwriters more than any other they’ve made up to this point. How that plays out with fans and critics is anybody’s guess, but there’s no denying that this is eclectic, expansive, and very well-crafted music, and that the band believes in it whole-heartedly, which makes I and Love and You an album that’s very hard to dislike.