The Avett Brothers’ new album is a return to what makes them great

3 mins read
Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers. YouTube screengrab.

The relationship of art to morality and politics is tricky, and fraught with pitfalls.

On the one hand, good art makes fundamental claims of truth. The artist’s purpose is not merely to entertain. Rather, he uses his medium to make assertions about reality that he believes are true. To be sure, the artist invents characters, stories, situations or events. But for the serious artist, the purpose of those fabrications is to force her audience to consider truth claims, not merely to pass the time. And because these claims have public effects, good art is naturally, inherently political.

On the other hand, however, if the artist sees his purpose as staking out a political position or commenting on public policy issues, the art inevitably suffers. The intrinsic moral character of any claim of truth is itself political. But when the artist tries to force her art to be political, the muse is often silenced by the rigid purpose of the misguided artist. Art is political, but the muses are not.

These observations are illustrated by the return to form of the popular Americana band, The Avett Brothers, with their new album, entitled simply, “The Avett Brothers,” released May 17, 2024. Composed of brothers Scott and Seth Avett, Bob Crawford, and Joe Kwon, the Avett Brothers rose to success through a series of thoughtful, introspective albums such as “I and Love and You” (2009), “The Carpenter” (2012), and “True Sadness” (2016), among others.

These albums are filled with thoughtful, introspective lyrics accompanied by pleasing melodies, and played with a supercharged intensity by a tight alt-country band. They are noteworthy for tender love songs such as “I and Love and You” and “I Wish I Was,” for example. They also have explored themes of regret and remorse, through songs such as “Divorce Separation Blues” and “Fisher Road to Hollywood.”

A deliberate political turn

All these albums (prior to 2019) are illustrations of the artists saying things they believe are true, but without any agenda other than allowing the muses to speak through them. The moral vision — and thus the political importance — of the songs emerged organically from the art. In 2019, however, the Avett Brothers produced what in my mind is the regrettable and forgettable, “Closer Than Together.” Departing from the artistic vision of their prior albums, the band made a deliberately “political” album, commenting on various hot button policy issues and contentious political debates. And the art suffered for it. “Closer Than Together” did not have the spontaneity of their prior work. The brothers forced the songs around certain political statements. I agreed with most of these political positions. But the album is the weakest in their discography.

Perhaps realizing this, looking to reintroduce themselves — and to reinvigorate the artistry of their prior work — the new album is simply called, “The Avett Brothers.” Without being formulaic, the songs return to the methods that made their earlier work artistically successful. Writing about time, memory and relationships, there’s nary a political song among the nine strong tracks of the new album.

For example, in “Never Apart,” they write about the inseparable bonds of authentic love: “And death is not an issue / It cannot break my heart / And I don’t have to miss you / We’ll never be apart.” “Cheap Coffee Brewing” is a rumination on the challenges of caring for a newborn child in difficult financial straits. The memories of those days endure in the singer: “Little hands building things / Climbing mountains, tracing stars, chasing dreams / First light I missed, made up / By the afterglow / I can still feel the warmth of your love light / Shining on me.”

The “Avett Brothers” also explores themes related to the passing of time, aging, what is to come. In “Forever Now,” the singer asks, “How long is now? / We could stay but we don’t know / Some say forever / Who are these men? / I wanna live / Forever now with them.” But we do not — and cannot — see what lies ahead. Thus, in “Orion’s Belt,” they write, “Taking my memories, leaving this place / Earning my heartache, holding it tight / Owning my history outright…. Looking for a healing, under a ceiling / When it’s beyond Orion’s belt.”

Letting truth emerge

The artistic unity of the new album is tied together in the last song, “We are Loved,” which reminds me of “No Hard Feelings,” the last song on the 2016 album, “True Sadness.” “No Hard Feelings” asks, “When my body won’t hold me anymore / And it finally lets me free / Will I be ready? / When my feet won’t walk another mile / And my lips give their last kiss goodbye / Will my hands be steady?”

The last song of the excellent new album, “We are Loved,” posits a humble, tentative answer to this question, reflecting good Christian theology: “Every stitch and seam / Every wish and dream / Even in tragedy / There lives divinity … If we deny it / Or if we face it / May we embrace it / We are loved.”

It is a special pleasure to see artists one admires return to the form that made them admirable. Deliberately eschewing the overt politics of “Closer Than Together,” The Avett Brothers have again made very good art. It is art that asks hard questions, posits tentative answers, and lets the truth emerge as the muses will.

Kenneth Craycraft

Kenneth Craycraft, an OSV columnist, is a professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati and author of “Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America" (OSV Books).