For their ninth album, Seth and Scott Avett — better known as The Avett Brothers — basically decided to get real.
In a letter to fans announcing the arrival of “True Sadness” (American Recordings / Republic Records), Seth Avett writes about removing the lens that would “present themselves in the most favorable light possible” and crafting an album “as multidimensional as its makers.”
They succeeded. The Avett Brothers’ gorgeous harmonies remain intact, but they are deployed in a far wider range of circumstances here, using a variety of beats and styles to better serve the stories they are trying to tell.
There’s a wild electronic bounce to “Satan Pulls the Strings” that gives the traditional-sounding bluesy lyrics some extra lift. Producer Rick Rubin adds a funky bass line and some Nine Inch Nails-styled distortion on the vocals to twist its traditional roots a bit further. On “You Are Mine,” the gurgling synth lines and throwback keyboard effects make the silly love song sound like it came from some long lost Wings album.
When the Avetts decide to keep the accompaniment more traditional, they generally try to make the lyrics more unexpected. On “Smithsonian,” they trade off vocals as they declare, “My bedroom’s an office. My kitchen’s a car. My life is a joke and my bathroom’s a bar.” The bittersweet “Fisher Road to Hollywood” features some sweet Simon and Garfunkel-inspired harmonies that make the sometimes-painful tale of becoming increasingly popular musicians all the more poignant. “I had to leave a few behind when they replaced the apple wine with cocaine and codeine pills,” they sing together. “I knew I was done.”
“True Sadness” isn’t always sad, but it certainly does feel true — truer than the Avetts have allowed themselves to be before, which lets their ambitious, yet still-tender natures shine through brighter than ever.