“The last thing the world needs is another piece of sociopolitical commentary.” That’s the first line of notes introducing The Avett Brothers’ new album, Close Than Together.
What can we say about this album? It’s halfway political, halfway personal. But maybe that’s part of the point, hence the title. It’s an intensely personal work, born out of their own private experiences and feelings, and at some point those feelings were about the news cycle.
If the last album was stitching a quilt, this album is laundering the stained bedsheets. They went from celebrating the American patchwork of musical influences to now laying bare the hard truths of the American experience.
Today the Bros. Guard sit down for a personal look at their latest record. We pick out the meaning, and try to label the major thematic commentary that links the songs together.
Don’t say you know my type, I’m one of a kind
Thank God for merciful variety
Luke: This is the only real “rock” song on the album. I feel like the previous album had songs like this, but whereas, say, “True Sadness” was a song of sadness, this one contains more anger. But in both cases, the emotions are hidden in the rock. This song feels like a transition from the previous album.
Caleb: And what’s it mean? It’s also the least straightforward. Is it a personal song? Maybe, but I wonder if it’s also that token song about their fanbase. This song, let alone the album, is another departure, and the repeated reference to bleeding (as in “bleeding” art in “Slight Figure of Speech”), as well as them being left behind and leaving “you” behind, makes me think it’s a statement about how they always know there are fans who will feel betrayed, yet also “leave” them, yet even on this album, they’re not really that far away from what they always were. In fact, in these folky songs coming up, we’ll see how that’s true.
Commentary: Self, Media
“Tell the Truth”
I lied to my doctor, I lied to my lover
I wanna make amends but where to I start
C: Simple advise, be honest, starting with yourself. But how about that monologue? I wasn’t sure at first, but then I thought, “I see, it’s like, break the melody and tell the truth so plain there’s no song to it.” Or sometimes it’s drowned out in happy song.
L: It’s a reaction to postmodernism in an age where lies and deceit are told everywhere, sure. But I also think it was written, like all their stuff, from personal experience, and it came out of AA meetings. The first step involves acknowledging a truth to yourself, lying to your doctor and lover is what alcoholics do, and no matter how happy you make others with a lie, real change begins with tackling those hidden problems.
Commentary: Deceit, Relationships
A misnamed people and a kidnapped race
Laws may change but we can’t erase the scars of a nation
Luke: I found it to be accurate, humbling. It gets into the shame of a nation, but not to divide, because we’re already divided. The shameful parts are what can unite, because we’re honest about pain. We’ve been neglecting history for too long, in education especially.
Caleb: I keep wondering, it’s harsh, but is it harsh enough? If I had to go line-by-line, there are lines I’d look at and say, “nah, go harsher.” But would it unite? They start the song luring in people who just want a pure patriotic anthem. Then they hook them with honesty. Let’s get real, this country is built on violence, greed, inhumanity, slavery. Yet again, you have to have a love for the good things in the past, and there’s hope in being able to separate them from the bad. Hold on to it.
Commentary: Freedom, Violence
“Long Story Short”
Ain’t it confusing to search for the will
And learn when kind it that you’ve lost your way?
Caleb: A tale of life as a millennial. I like how it’s a simple melody and construction, and then wonder if it’s allegorical. Sort of like Dylan?
Luke: Well, everyone’s connected. And the long story short is “children can’t be left to raise themselves.” At the end it seems to relate to the chain of events that led to a child being fatherless, but is really about how all these characters are children who can’t be left to make their own choices without guidance. Also, who is Brandi McGill?
Commentary: Success, Daily Life
“C Sections and Railway Trestles”
Planning for the future, health and dental,
Picking up my baby boy, easy and gentle
Luke: Probably my favorite. So playful, definitely written from the heart. This is their life. There are painful moments in life, but the happy ones too. You just bounce along and go. Bounces like a song by Barry Louis Bolisar.
Caleb: Or Jack Johnson. Yes, the train of life goes on, you ride each car. I think there’s also both a critique of and an appeal to conservative family values, like a child seeing mom and dad as a “vessel” and “muscle,” respectively. In a way, they have roles, but in a way, they go beyond that. Mom is also a warrior. Dad also shops for arugula.
Commentary: Daily Life, Family
The best beggars are choosers, the best winners are losers
The best lovers ain’t ever been loved
Caleb: Didn’t know about this one. Still don’t. A fun cowboy with death riding shotgun. This song is the most jumbled mess, made me think of those truck anthem songs from the 70s like “Convoy,” and guys like Waylon might have recorded a weird single about road life.
Luke: Did you notice the cowboy crew was black? It seems carefree, but there’s something dark underneath. In the video, Seth is a skeleton. You can see why the dark makes people go crazy. That one one bridge reminds me of the beatitudes. It’s trying to say something about the people on the edge of society, but gets exhausted.
Commentary: Success, Self
“When You Learn”
I gave the world the best, brought back to you the rest
And in return you loved me more
Luke: This is a song that sounds like it could be on The Gleam. Great echo effect. You really feel you’re on the mountain. Alone.
Caleb: This is the one that made me cry. At first the speaker is talking to himself or surrogate self, as in soul. But then he’s speaking to a lover he feels shameful for neglecting and not being good enough for. But the lesson is that you can’t earn good love. Then I thought that this song is also spiritual, and they’re singing about God.
Commentary: Relationships, Self
Every Sunday they’re out there pretending to be Rambo
And I’m in here pretending like Sunday is still sacred
Caleb: The preachiest song. Great message, though not very eloquent. I thought it felt squeezed in. In this case, they are so done with the problem that they have to show it with message over melody. The song is a bang. A few of those lines really step on toes. They hurt.
Luke: Not eloquent, but raw and straight. like their song “In the Curve.” Reminds me of Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore” and Jack Johnson’s “Cookie Jar.” And they’re not even taking a political stance so much as hitting reality with a note of real vulnerability and sorrow you wan’t walk away from or solve with a good guy and a gun.
Commentary: Violence, Media
How can I laugh when I don’t think it’s funny
My happiness is not your toy
Luke: I really think this song is about God. “Who’s leading here?” We have the heart, but we don’t apply the brains. Again with the AA theme, alcohol won’t make it better, but only God will make it better.
Caleb: Man, the whole time I thought it was a breakup song where a man pleads for a second change. Then again, I guess it could be about God too. I see again the appeal by a man who admits he’s vulnerable, the woman is stronger, and he needs to make amends.
Commentary: Relationships, Daily Life
“New Woman’s World”
Please I beg your pardon but we got a bit confused
Some of our brothers thought our sisters were born for getting used
Caleb: It’s a cute little anthem. My one question is, “too soon?” I mean, the world is still mostly led by men. So are they being sarcastic? That doesn’t sound like them, either, to be bitter masculine dudes.
Luke: Well, I wonder that it might have been written for the daughters. So it’s showing them that they’re happy they can have a bigger role in the coming world. But maybe there’s some sarcasm in a couple lines, like about fixing all the problems in half the time. So I’ll go with my daughters explanation.
Commentary: Gender, Violence
“Who Will I Hold”
Happiness comes, and it seems much like money:
People gather around it; when it’s gone they go running
Luke: First off, love the guitar and banjo. This is the one that made me cry. And the lyrics are very country. I think it’s also for the kids. It’s telling them that as they grow up the world gets tough, but also, when they grow up and go away, he will be alone. Feels like a song from the Carpenter album.
Caleb: Man I thought of it darker. A man about to lose his family because of his choices. and he’s begging, pleading. Lots of regrets.
Commentary: Relationships, Family
I can’t take the criticism, I’m eaten up with cynicism
All the colors in the prism entering my eyes, still can’t change my mind
Luke: Wouldn’t be surprised if this was their most personal song. Like if it came from an argument they had. I can see how it’s a testimony of how a man feels and he just needs to let it out. The most selfish or self-centered sounding song.
Caleb: Now that you say that, this song I feel through and through, from beginning to end. It gets me. Both as a creative person and as a man trying to juggle responsibilities, there comes this need to be so much, to feel tied down, criticized, with so much going on. And he admits how he treats relationships transactionally sometimes. He just wants to be heard, though, in this moment.
Commentary: Self, Freedom
“It’s Raining Today”
Still I can’t resist to let my thoughts stray
What harm will it do? It’s raining today
Caleb: Our least favorite because of its slowness, but it does function as a slow, heavy, mood-driven piece that melts the album down and forms a kind of Sabbath. Heavy.
Luke: So, this song would have sounded better unproduced, like some of the songs that sneak into albums like Mignonette. I imagine them playing it in the living room with their children playing and maybe even singing along.
Commentary: Work, Daily Life
Tried and true, we still love this record. Our one big complaint: Too much Reuben, not enough banjo.