Two and a half years ago, a group of us gathered in a basement late at night to listen to a newfound band, the Avett Brothers. Tucker rode his bike to the next town over to get the album (I and Love and You), and delivered the most beautiful love-letter for an album that any of us had ever heard before.
And then we sat in the dark and listened. I cried during "I and Love and You."
And now the Avetts have a new album again: The Carpenter. (You can listen to it in its entirety, courtesy of NPR's First Listen.) When a band puts out another album after huge success on their first, I listen for what's different. If it's just more of the same, I'm less impressed, and usually don't end up buying the second album. But if they can add something new, show the world they've got expansive skills, then I buy. Frinstance, after the compilation of one-hit miracles on X&Y, Coldplay's Viva La Vida was a storybook and an epic poem--the songs could stand on their own (as in X&Y), but they were also integrated into the arc of each other. Beirut's The Rip Tide showed a more crisp, driven Zach Condon than the warbling, wandering gypsy melodies (which I love just as much) of Gulag Orkestar. And after For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon actually sings notes in the bass clef on Bon Iver.
Here, in this "next" album, the Avetts are certainly putting on some new hats. The headline song, "The Once and Future Carpenter" is cedarn and valleyed like John Denver. "Live and Die"'s clippy rhythm and rhymes are reminiscent of some of Colin Meloy's work with the Decemberists. And "Paul Newman v. The Demons" is its own beast entirely.
They carry off this foray into new styles with a tentative (and endearing) curiosity, even if the poetics and melodies of these first few songs are a little more generic and predictable than their first album's. And this is where it gets sticky: I have mixed feelings about the Avetts trying on new hats. I and Love and You was a tender, incredibly intimate peek into two brothers' hearts. I fell as much in love with their purposeful, compassionate view of the world as I did with their voices and melodies.
So I came at The Carpenter waiting for the one song that would grab me around the throat and choke me, the way "I and Love and You" did the first time I heard it. The album takes a little while to get there--it isn't until "February Seven" that I start feeling like I'm really listening to the Avett Brothers--but by the time "Through my Prayers" and "A Father's First Spring" comes around, that familiar goodhearted, bright-eyed longing is back in full force: "I have been homesick for you since we met."
Best song on the album? The last one, "Life."
"We're not of this world for long."
And that's what I love most about the Avett Brothers--they remind me of the bigger things I was born for, of the bigger worlds that exist in honesty, in forgiveness, and in loving each other.
(P.S. What's your favorite Avett Brothers song?)