Avett Brothers, 'The Carpenter'

The Avett Brothers' uneven, but rewarding, return.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Scott Avett alluded to the personal joys and tragedies that fueled the songwriting process for his band's new album The Carpenter, saying, "I don't know that we ever understood life or death as well as we do now."

Makes sense. In the last five years, on top of the band's signing to a major label and performing with Bob Dylan at the Grammys, Scott's brother/co-bandleader, Seth, has gotten married, and Scott and his wife have had two children. Meanwhile, though, bassist Bob Crawford has alternated between touring and life in the hospital, as his young daughter receives treatment for brain cancer.

The Carpenter's best songs are in its introverted second half, and these songs capture the fullness and conflicting emotions of such a time with plainspoken grace. In "A Father's First Spring," Scott Avett breaks the first rule of songwriting by writing about the birth of his child. Good thing, though—it might be the best song on the album, juxtaposing the sentimentality ("I have been homesick for you since the day that we met") with the rawness ("the blood on the floor and the love in your yell") of fatherhood. "Through My Prayers" will be instantly relatable to anyone who has lost a loved one with unresolved words between them. These two songs feel like gifts—invitations into a deeply personal conversation.

The Carpenter's best songs are in its introverted second half.
The album's more public face is more hit-or-miss. The first single, "Live and Die," boils down the album's raw specificities to vague platitudes: You and I / We're the same / Live and die / We're the same. The album's opener, "The Once and Future Carpenter," does the same thing, but worse. Its mid-tempo, 70s-folk amble builds to the kind of rousing climax that has unfortunately become an Avett Brothers trademark. It's hackneyed and feels like fan service. The horn-drenched stomper (and live favorite) "Down With the Shine" works much better. Smart and self-deprecating, it curses the good times for so often leading to bad times, and the pessimism of that song's declaration "I get took for a ride every time!" feels a whole lot more honest than the former's "We're all in this together!"

I and Love and You was criticized, probably rightly, for its sentimentality and, er, emotionalism. The Carpenter is definitely a better album—it has fewer moments of catharsis, and more of them feel earned. It's far from perfect, but all Avett Brothers albums are. They're a band that favors generosity over editorial precision, which means I usually find myself referring to favorite songs instead of favorite albums.

It has fewer moments of catharsis, and more of them feel earned.
For me, the gut-punch comes in the last line of the entire album. The closing track, "Life," breezed past me the first few times I heard it. Its simple verses revisit the themes of the album before giving way to a beautifully composed bridge (Seth's angelic falsetto deserves time-and-a-half pay here) that hints at a spiritual foundation underpinning many of these songs: You and I know all too well / about the hell and paradise / right here on earth.

3 Comments

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Debi M. reviewed…

I respectfully disagree. I think this is a beautiful album and the first two songs break my heart (in a good way).

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Anonymous reviewed…

Still a great album, just nothing particularly new and exciting.

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Natalieshew Npi reviewed…

I agree with everything you just wrote about the album. I was underimpressed in general, but in complete agreement about your thoughts on favorite song band, no a favorite album band.

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