I’ve been listening to The Avett Brothers compulsively for the last month or so, and in that time I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about their music that appeals to me so. They’re talented but not extraordinary instrumentalists. They sing reasonably well. As lyricists they hew more to direct-but-plain than elegant-but-complex - more Pete Seeger than Joanna Newsom, if you will - and they’re not above using the cliche to their own advantage.
Yet for all that, their songs are remarkably moving, to a degree that borders on manipulative. Their albums veer from emotional peak to trough with a speed that seems frankly ill-advised, jubilant one moment and sobbing the next but never anything less than unabashedly sentimental. They’re the band that Pitchfork hates to love. And there’s something very impressive about a band that can move from a meditation on family to an exquisite love song to fierce expression of self-loathing with equal skill and faculty.
“Murder In The City” is from their EP The Second Gleam. “January Wedding” is from their brand-new record I And Love And You. “Shame” is from their 2008 album Emotionalism.
It’s true that The Avett Brothers aren’t doing anything markedly different than what country music - or folk music, or alt-country, or any other genre that relies on guitars and fiddles and earnestness - has been doing for the last fifty years: drawing upon a reservoir of common stories, of heartbreak and joy and disillusionment and guilt, and telling those stories in a way that seems at once specific and universal. It’s why Don Williams or Dolly Parton can sell out 80,000 seats in Zimbabwe and have everyone in the stadium singing along.
There’s something very appealing about this kind of naked emotion, because that’s how our emotions feel, to us: they’re keening things, personal and unignorable and absolutely immune to reason. No knowledge of how small our sufferings are can make them seem any less painful to us. And artists like The Avett Brothers tell us that’s okay - that reveling in our joy and drowning in our sorrow isn’t only normal but right. “I hope that I don’t sound to insane when I say / There is darkness all around us / I don’t feel weak but I do need sometimes for her to protect me,” they sing on “January Wedding”, and I, whose life has admittedly been pretty blessed, can sing along and feel the truth. And therein lies the power.