The reason I ask is because, when I think of bands with “Brothers” in their names, I can’t think of any I like. I don’t like the Blood Brothers, I hate the Jonas Brothers (because I’m a grown-up), I don’t even like the Blues Brothers. I’ve never listened to the Palace Brothers, but they’re a Will Oldham project so I’ll assume I like them. That’s three to one against. But I’m not going to judge last year’s coffeehouse kings, the Avett Brothers, on name alone. Nor will I judge them based on how ready they are for a Grey’s Anatomy montage (or worse, some shitty CW teen soap opera. Wait, is that worse than Grey’s Anatomy? How are the two things different?) – and believe me, songs like “I and Love and You,” the title track to the Avetts’ latest record, are a little too ripe for the melodramatic plucking.
But I don’t blame the Avett Brothers for that because “I and Love and You” is a simple, lovely, refreshingly earnest tune. Also, to my knowledge, the Avett Brothers haven’t taken any annoyingly public pledges of abstinence. So they’ve got that going for them. But I and Love and You, produced by Rick Rubin (who is rumored to produce albums entirely with his beard these days), never again reaches the heights it achieves with its title track, which – helpfully or not – opens the album.
Which is not to say the Avett Brothers aren’t good. I and Love and You is Actually Pretty Lovely, which I kind of didn’t expect. I expected it to be Actually Pretty Irritating. But it managed to top Paste’s (I trust Paste more than I trust most magazines) Best Albums list for Twenty-Oh-Nine and it’s been generally well received everywhere, if you can get past the the fact that almost every review I’ve read of this record drops the “Their Old Stuff was Better” bomb on the poor, unsuspecting (or are they? The Rick Rubin production, the move to NYC, they suggest to me a conscious effort to reach the much-coveted Next Level. I’ve got no beef with bands trying to do that, but I can see why it might prompt critics to say that the old stuff was better if the old stuff wasn’t being made with a bigger market-share in mind) Avetts. I’ve read that old Avett Brothers stuff is a little more shambolic, which is something I think I and Love and You could use. It’s too clean, too neat, almost too nice. And when it tries to let its hair down (“Kick Drum Heart”), it gets a little goofy.
I and Love and You‘s fatal flaw – and it’s significant – is that it seems like it’s often trying way too hard to be infused with meaning. Like when this line pops up in : “I want the pride my mother has/ and not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.” If you didn’t cringe reading that, you’re a better person than I because I find that line wholly unworthy of the Avett Brothers’ considerable musical capabilities. But I can tell, every time I hear that line, that they’re aching for depth with that one. In baseball parlance, we call that a swing and a miss. One reason “I and Love and You” works so well as a song is because it doesn’t contain any attempt at a Big Meaningful Statement. It has a solid emotional core with which the listener can identify and for which the listener can provide their own meaning. The experience of moving on and not being sure what’s next, of hoping that the new city (or job or girl or guy or whatever) will embrace us is an experience that 98% of us (maybe 100% of people who will find this album on the counter at Starbucks) have had and because “I and Love and You” isn’t striving for Monumental Importance, it becomes important by connecting with its audience. Incidentally, this is a skill the Band possessed in spades – I’ve read favorable comparisons between the Avett Brothers and the Band but I submit to you, my 20-30 readers (new average!), that the Avetts won’t really earn that comparison until they master the art of real emotional substance. “Real emotional substance” should not, under any circumstances, be mistaken for being emo. When I say “real emotional substance”, I mean that feeling all reasonable people get when they hear the Band sing “The Weight”: a feeling of simultaneous joy and heartache, and/or a nostalgia for something you have never experienced and might never experience (I’m paraphrasing Edgar Watson Howe here: “When people hear good music, it makes them homesick for something they never had, and never will have.”). “The Weight” doesn’t lay out a keen and effective new immigration policy, but it solves our problems on – dare I say it? Fuck yes, I do – a spiritual level and therefore has value (as does 99% of the rest of the Band’s output). The Avett Brothers are palpably close to understanding this and it causes I and Love and You to vacillate between sublimely rewarding and downright consternating. I find myself rooting for this album every time I listen to it, but nearly half the album has me shaking my head like a disapproving father. This band has undeniable talent – great harmonies, a sharp ear for melody, et cetera – but I and Love and You‘s blemishes squander that talent a little too frequently for my comfort.
Ultimately, whether or not I and Love and You‘s beauty is worth its beastly bits is in the ear of the beholder. You might hear it and decide it really was the best album of last year. If you do, I suggest you go back to the Band’s Music from Big Pink and give it a good listen. Then, stand in front of your mirror, look yourself square in the eye, and ask yourself, “Really? Really?”