The great folk-rock revivalists of the early 2010s may have hit a fork in the road. Veering toward one route, bands have shown they can ditch the banjos and go electric to polarizing effect, as Mumford & Sons did on 2015’s Wilder Mind. Or they can hold course down the other path, as the Lumineers proved on this year’s Cleopatra, and risk playing it too safe—or, worse, putting listeners to sleep.
For the Avett Brothers, the arena-headlining quartet led by North Carolina siblings Scott and Seth, the choice is clear: Do both. True Sadness, their ninth studio album and fourth produced by music whiz Rick Rubin, both treads familiar ground and maps out new terrain. The first few songs showcase a sound the Brothers have developed over the past decade and a half: twangy guitars, feel-good harmonies, and strings courtesy of cellist Joe Kwon. But then there’s a sudden shift: “You Are Mine” blows up the band’s rootsy sound with a galloping synth beat and tempo shifts. The next track, “Satan Pulls the Strings,” employs dizzying keyboards that are one bong rip away from a Tame Impala song.
Such experimentation is short-lived, but it’s a shot of energy that keeps the rest of the album from dragging. Thanks to the foot-tapping, hand-clapping good cheer, it’s easy to overlook the dark subject matter hinted at by the album title: “Satan Pulls the Strings” explores postpartum depression, while Seth yodels through the pain on “Divorce Separation Blues.” There’s a world-weariness to these tunes that sometimes feels trite: “I made a discovery/Life ain’t forever and lunch isn’t free,” goes the chorus of “Smithsonian.” Yet the Brothers’ openness about their struggles means that even at their cheesiest, they never come across as anything less than sincere.
In a letter to fans announcing the album, Seth explained how the walls between their personal and professional lives had dissolved over the years. It made their lyrics more honest and less self-conscious, he wrote. You can hear that freedom in their new sound, and it’s what will keep them going long after this decade’s folk-rock renaissance: a willingness to tear down boundaries—and be all the better for it. B+
Fisher Road to Hollywood A stirring tale of friendship and self-destruction
You Are Mine An adventurous, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink love song
Ain’t No Man A rowdy hakuna matata that kicks off the album