October 21, 2018, 20:47

Listening to the Avett Brothers and Thinking About Extreme Musical Honesty |

Listening to the Avett Brothers and Thinking About Extreme Musical Honesty |

On Monday night, HBO premièred “May It Last,” a documentary, directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, about the folk-rock band the Avett Brothers. The siblings at the center of the group, Seth and Scott Avett, were raised in Concord, North Carolina, and have been playing together for most of their lives. They’re part of an Americana revival that’s been coalescing for the last fifteen or so years, in which young bands, many of which were reared on indie or punk rock, embrace the vernacular traditions seeded in places like Mississippi and Georgia in the first several decades of the twentieth century. In the wrong hands, a decontextualized reimagining of this music (early gospel, folk, country, old-time, and blues songs) can feel sexless, torpid, and undemanding, if also pleasant enough—kind of like having breakfast at an airport Starbucks, on your way to a conference, maybe in Tallahassee. It’ll do, you think, and break off a dry corner of scone.

“May It Last” suggests that the Avetts are doing something more interesting than many of their peers—that they’re pulling from a different well. This manifests not in their music but in their comportment. The film rightfully marvels at the brothers’ ongoing coöperation—one of its central questions is: Can you believe these two don’t hate each other yet? —as they calmly navigate family life, touring, illness, marriage, children, and the writing and recording of their ninth album, “True Sadness.” Part of the brothers’ internal harmony surely has something to do with Seth and Scott being earnest to the point of seeming, at times, truly guileless. Seth, in particular, is uncommonly pure—he’s the type of dude who reads the platitude printed on an herbal tea bag, nods approvingly, and then pads over to show it to his big brother. This precise exchange happens, in a promotional trailer for “True Sadness.” The phrase is “Be Yourself.”

Apatow’s creative sensibility—he makes charming and bittersweet movies about hopeful people who are doing the best they can but still floundering, sometimes in terrifically funny ways—is consonant with the band’s music, which is based on a similar idea: the most useful art is the most honest art. Don’t be cool! “Be Yourself.” But what does honesty mean, in the context of songwriting? All art is rooted, to some degree, in performance, and obfuscation can be just as beautiful and poignant as confession. What I like most about the Avett Brothers is that they write deeply plaintive and uncomplicated songs about the facts of their lives, without apologizing for (or equivocating about) what’s informing that process. Sometimes the results are almost unbearably maudlin—I have visibly winced while listening to them, thinking, Jeez, man, are you really saying that out loud?—but their intentions are so decent I inevitably root for their success.

Most musicians are prone to denying rote autobiographical readings of their songs, which makes sense. Unlike, say, books, which tend to get slotted into unforgiving categories of true or not, songs can be fictive, or plainly confessional, and there’s no telling one from the other. For a writer, that’s rare air. (I can think of several disgraced fabulists who, had it been allowed, would’ve gladly said, “Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not—I don’t want to put any limits on it.”) Very few disciplines, outside of songwriting, are granted such latitude. Yet the Avetts resist it. In 2013, Seth went through a divorce (“What a time … of horrifying feelings,” he recalls in the film), and much of “True Sadness” is about navigating the fallout: remorse over a broken commitment; guilt about falling in love with another person; worry over whether he hurt his former partner so badly that recovery is now impossible for either of them. “There’s some specificity in some of these songs—you can’t confuse what the meaning is, what it’s speaking to. When you name a song ‘Divorce Separation Blues,’ there’s only one thing it can be about,” Seth explains to the camera. “It’s such a weird thing that divorce is so common, and so rare in songs. ‘Breakup’ is rampant in songwriting, but ‘divorce,’ in particular, is barely mentioned.”

Rick Rubin, a co-founder of Def Jam Records who has since produced records for Adele, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Slayer, Run-D.M.C., and more, signed the band to his label, American Recordings, in 2008. “The ability to really share innermost, deepest, private thoughts is what makes a great songwriter a great songwriter,” Rubin says. He produced “True Sadness,” as he has each Avett Brothers record since “I and Love and You,” in 2009.

In the documentary, Rubin wanders around his Malibu studio in a white T-shirt and basketball shorts while the band rehearses. He periodically runs a hand through a profuse white beard. One of the more riveting sequences in “May It Last” is the recording of “No Hard Feelings,” which is, at essence, a song about dying, or making peace with dying, or imagining all the ways in which a person could possibly make peace with dying. Seth plays guitar and sings the lead vocal, while Scott plays banjo and does the backup harmonies:

When the sun hangs low in the west
And the light in my chest
Won’t be kept
Held at bay any longer
When the jealousy fades away
And it’s ash and dust
For cash and lust
And it’s just hallelujah
And love in thoughts, and love in the words
Love in the songs they sing in the church
And no hard feelings

When the band starts to play, Rubin slips into a kind of fugue state, his eyes closed, shifting from one foot to the other. By the end, “No Hard Feelings” is only about reconciliation: “I’m learning why it matters / For me and you / To say it, and mean it, too,” Seth sings. He is asking for absolution and peace. To forgive and be forgiven. It’s a difficult and hard-won moment.

Moments after they finish, Rubin pops in and says, “Excellent work, everybody! Excellent work! Really good!” Both the Avetts look shell-shocked. Seth drinks some tea, wipes his brow, exhales. He goes to his brother. “It’s weird to be congratulated on the mining of the soul. It’s weird,” Scott mutters. Rubin reappears. “What’s next?” he chirps.

“Well. I feel like we need some space, you know?” Scott says. He and Seth stagger outside and sit on the studio’s back porch, drinking water in silence. It’s dusk. “The elephant in the room is that the song sells, and I can’t get away from that feeling. That it’s congratulated upon—I’m deeply conflicted about it,” Scott says.

I will admit that I was moved by this—the idea that it’s possible for a musician to still be horrified by the commercialization of pain. Perhaps the brothers are willfully naïve, or merely privileged. Or perhaps that’s where the title of “May It Last” comes in—maybe a little innocence isn’t so awful after all.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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