Jonathan Henley

Jonathan Henley

The Avett Brothers are known for their lyrics, catchy melodies and a rabid fan base that crosses generations. Their music has always been at once ironic and self-deprecating, yet sincerely founded in real-life stories. Eventually, however, their music would naturally have to touch on so-called “political” themes. Their new record, “Closer Than Together,” may be as comprehensive a view of life as the band has ever produced.

Granted, the phrase “political music” is a stupid way to characterize story-telling about history or social commentary, but the average critic and the average “I only listen to music in the background” listener are seldom accused of caring for nuance. So, from that shallow perspective, “Closer Than Together” includes some “political” songs.

The reality is that any holistic picture of life will make its way through the systems and conditions that change the ultimate context of the music. The songs on this record together paint a larger picture of life. Any attempt to look at our motives, our loves and cynicism and irony, is only complete by putting our lives in social and historic context.

The opening lines on the album set the stage for an interior journey through the things that affect our lives even though they may not be visibly apparent for one reason or another. “I’m bleeding white from my clothes but I’m lying in the snow so nobody knows that I’m dying” is a devious pun about “lying.” “Bleeding White” also includes a demand not to categorize: “Don’t say you know my type. I’m one of a kind.” From the very outset, this record is a challenge to see people for what we are and to see our moment in history for what it is, no matter what outward appearances or our rose-colored wishes might suggest.

Not coincidentally, then, the second song on the record, “Tell the Truth,” begins by confessing to lying to his doctor and lover. A song that sounds like ’70s folk-pop music, it moves on to making the point that the simple truth being told to oneself is the only to offer any lasting happiness to anyone else: “Tell the truth to yourself and the rest will fall in place.” Of course, the tension is that while truth telling is often uncomfortable, it’s essential for growing up.

“We Americans” claims a full citizenship as “a son of Uncle Sam,” but struggles with the disillusionment of the unrealized or outright distorted ideals we Americans represent. Along with “Bang Bang” and “New Woman’s World,” “We Americans” tells historical facts and essentially demands the truth about our collective identity get a full public hearing. For many, this level of accountability is troublesome because there’s more than a little regret to go around. Deconstructing our illusions about ourselves is not for the faint-hearted, which is why so many of our public figures opt for shallow bluster and pandering over uncomfortable honesty. However, deconstruction is a redemptive act, and in this generation, few musicians show both the wounding and the cleansed healing like the Avett Brothers.

Introspective songs like “Better Here,” “When You Learn,” “It’s Raining Outside, “ and “Who Will I Hold” all reflect on the universal collision of vulnerability with relationships. Maybe we always tend to assume these are romantic relationships, but I can’t avoid thinking that some of these lines apply to relationships with brothers, friends, mentors, and those people I just never grew close to.

A stream-of-consciousness story, “Long Story Short” simply paints a tableau of life on a corner that takes the narrator on an adventure through frustrations, unemployment, family life, pettiness, and even the halls of Congress. All of that happens before the song ends with a thud on the line, “Long story short, best I can tell, children can’t be left to raise themselves.” It implicates all of us for acting like children even though we really ought to know better. And just as the song moves from one story connected to the next then to the next, we pass on our motives from one generation to the next, all connected.

Maybe that’s why it felt so poignant when my son emailed me “High Steppin’,” the first single release from the album. Like “Locked Up,” it’s a mirror to a person seeing his own silliness and absurdity in the mirror. Like so many of the Avett’s songs, these are full of self-deprecating irony. The trick is finding folks who are willing to believe you when you point out your own silliness to them. This will send a wise person off on the chaotic quest for self-understanding (“Makin’ time and losing grip driving circles in the canyons of my mind”), which has a way of finding a wise humility. As with any act of deconstruction, though, the challenge lies in waiting for the hopeful part — “The hardest part is believing the very last word is love.”

I think that’s what the Avett Brothers are looking for on their 10th studio record. They still have the telltale production quality that Rick Rubin brings, stripping down the excess and allowing the purest voice of the band to emerge organically and authentically. Their melodies are characteristically catchy. Their sounds connect the varied traditions of American music with lyrics that remind us that the human condition still involves the same struggle with the good and evil inside us all, with the silliness and seriousness that such self-understanding requires. “Closer Than Together” is a beautiful monument to the power of vulnerability, honesty and the hopefulness that characterize the longings of an aware soul.

For the “Mission Statement” for “Closer Than Together”, visit https://bit.ly/2BV4D89.

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News Herald correspondent Jonathan Henley is a United Methodist pastor, former host of “Road Signs” radio show and a music fan. He writes a weekly column for The News Herald. Contact him at roadsignsradio@gmail.com.

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