The Avett Brothers’ new album, “Closer Than Together,” is a musical roller coaster of ups and downs. On their ninth studio album, the Avett Brothers get political, but these attempts are incredibly hit-or-miss, suffering from several severe cases of whiplash along the way. However, “Closer Than Together” nevertheless manages to hit the jackpot on a few songs, salvaging an otherwise lackluster album.
The Avett Brothers formed in 2000 and have since become well-known for their acoustic, deeply personal songs such as “I and Love and You.” In “Closer Than Together,” the Avett Brothers begin a partial about-face away from their style of their past albums. Although they claim that the album is not a sociopolitical work, “Closer Than Together” takes some long, hard looks in that direction. However, the Avett Brothers appear unmotivated to commit to a solely political album, much to their detriment. By chasing two rabbits at once, the Avett Brothers have failed to achieve much of anything.
The Avett Brothers begin their political commentaries on track three with the six-minute mistake of a song, “We Americans.” They open it up by establishing their love and patriotism for the U.S, and then continue with a recounting of the mistakes of the country’s past. However, their protests remain about as shallow as a local community kiddie pool, boiling down to the fact that slavery is bad. It certainly doesn’t help that the song is incredibly wordy, vague and not exactly pleasant to listen to.
Similarly, the song “New Woman’s World” swings and misses at playing politics. The Avett Brothers celebrate the transfer of power from the hands of men to women, who are needed to clean up the mess made by men. However, the entire idea seems a bit premature, especially given that only 23.7% of Congress is composed of women. Furthermore, certain lines, such as, “We couldn't seem to reach the grace that's born in every girl,” seem torn out of a Civil War-era handbook on morality. While the song certainly was born in good intention, it handles its subject matter with a heavy-handed clumsiness.
Other attempts at politics play out much better for the Avett Brothers. “Bang Bang” takes aim at both violent movies and gun culture in the rural South rather effectively. Personal references to being held at gunpoint and not-so-peaceful Sundays hit hard and drive the point home. “Long Story Short” is a wonderfully woven piece of artwork centered on the struggles of life as a young adult. It takes a look at the lives of several interconnected lives joined together by spilt dishes, too-long looks and held hands. Using a pointed sense of storytelling, the Avett Brothers craft an intriguing song that moves so fast that it demands a second listen. These songs are specific in their complaints, perhaps suggesting that the Avett Brothers are at their best when refraining from the sweeping yet vague criticisms of their other songs.
With regard to their non-political efforts on the album, “Closer Than Together” opens up on a high note with “Bleeding White.” The song is thoroughly rock, which makes it the only one of its kind on “Closer Than Together.” The downside of “Bleeding White” is that it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the album sonically, resulting in a severe case of tonal awkwardness when transitioning to track two “Tell the Truth,” which is otherwise a perfectly fine song. In this ode to honesty, the Avett Brothers contract their first case of monologues on the album. While these experiments in spoken word often carry an inspiring message, they can detract from the songs themselves. Nowhere is this truer than in “High Steppin,” an otherwise fun song whose momentum is stopped dead in its tracks by a minute-long monologue. Much preferred to the monologue is the mid-song piano instrumental of “When You Learn.” Here, the Avett Brothers find a much more effective avenue for reflection in the middle of a song with a tune that evokes a sense of romantic idealism.
To close out the album, the Avett Brothers employ the one-two punch of “Locked Up” and “It’s Raining Today.” The first, with its welcome upbeat tempo, is perhaps the most accessible song on the album, while the latter is the most cathartic, melting together piano and vocals to provide a very satisfying conclusion to the album.
In “Closer Than Together,” the Avett Brothers have provided an interesting yet forgettable album. The Avett Brothers’ protests may be present, but not all of their songs’ messages land equally. The album can lack cohesiveness at times, but it partially makes up for it through stellar storytelling and a few stand-out songs.