After almost 20 years of making records, playing shows and blending his voice with his brother Scott’s to produce high harmonies sweet as honeysuckle, Seth Avett reckons he’s finally figured it out.
Not the part about longevity or what it takes to keep a band like the Avett Brothers together, mind you. Both he and Scott Avett, in separate interviews with Billboard ahead of the Oct. 4 release of their 10th album Closer Than Together, are perfectly content to accept the luck of the draw when it comes to a thing like that. Making concertgoers happy, getting people to buy or stream your music — it’s an uncertain field they’re in. They’re pretty confident about at least one aspect of it, though.
“It’s actually become clearer to me in recent years that our music is kind of confrontational,” Seth Avett explains. “The words are right up front. It doesn’t work all that well in movies, because it’s not great as background music. It kind of gets in the way of whatever you’re doing, for better or worse. And for our most enthusiastic and devoted fans, that’s exactly what it needs to be.”
For those listeners, Avett Brothers songs are the soundtrack of road trips and family get-togethers; it’s music to hold somebody close to, with the occasional hook tailor-made for belting out at the top of your lungs in an arena.
The Avett Brothers make music they don’t intend to be enjoyed passively — and that conviction is about to be put to the test with Closer Than Together. The album offers fans a handful of songs that, while not ripped directly from the headlines, nevertheless offer damning commentary on some of the more lamentable aspects of America circa 2019. “We Americans,” almost six and a half minutes of Scott and Seth singing accompanied by little more than a single guitar, is about the parts of America that are apparently easier to ignore than fix. Its lyrics are as confrontational as any we’ve heard from the band: “I am a son of Uncle Sam, and I struggle to understand / The good and evil / But I’m doing the best I can / In a place built on stolen land / With stolen people.”
The earnestness in “We Americans” does not flag, and Seth’s voice is unobscured by instrumentation so you don’t miss any of the words. They go on to bemoan “the greed and arrogance of Manifest Destiny,” the “sins of Andrew Jackson” and how it’s “short-sighted” to say all of this was a long time ago and that we should just move on.
Both Seth and Scott insist the song was percolating for awhile and not meant to address a single specific current event, though it’s hard not to hear references to things like the Trump administration’s border policies in lyrics that mention children who’ve been “devalued and disavowed.” Explains Scott: “‘We Americans’ is really to be an essay. An historical essay about our personal relationship with being an American. About how it’s a rough journey we’ve been on. Accepting that okay, here it is. It’s complex and it’s a struggle and it’s hard to take. But if we’re together and looking at it in a hopeful way, then we’ll find redemption.”
“New Woman’s World,” meanwhile, imagines a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape that’s left after men ruin the world and puts a #MeToo-era reversal on James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” And then there’s “Bang Bang,” an attack on the excesses of American gun culture, which at one point slams the accumulation of “machine guns” by people “out there pretending to be Rambo.”
“As a collective,” Scott says, “we’ve always talked about current events. Nobody can get away from it. There’s more news coming in than anybody can process. There’s no doubt a song like ‘We Americans’… that’s a topic that’s relevant. It’s been relevant since this country was founded. It’s not new.
“A song like ‘Bang Bang,’ Seth and I will talk for hours about… the TV will be playing, and we’ll see these movies that are just ludicrous. You know? They’re nuts. And we’re going… we’ll flip from one channel and see some terrible shooting that’s happened, and then we flip to whatever and there’s a movie going, and you’re like — it’s real life here, and then I go over here and it’s two-fold. I just think all these things have accumulated enough to talk about.”
And you can’t say they didn’t warn you. The band released a letter in June in tandem with their official album announcement that promised this wasn’t going to be a political record — but adding that they nevertheless did “make an album that is obviously informed by what is happening now on a grander scale all around us … because we are part of it and it is a part of us.”
At their core, the brothers are artists and documentarians, sharing little pieces of what they see and feel by means of song. Sometimes, politics seep in. Other times, the music takes the form of “High Steppin’,” the first track officially released from the record — with a melody that will lodge itself right smack in the pleasure center of your brain and stay there. “I’m a-high steppin’, high bettin’, love givin’, I’m a love gettin’ guy,” Scott proudly sings from behind the wheel of a truck in the video… while wearing a rhinestone suit next to a guy in a skeleton outfit in the passenger seat.
For Scott, creating art like this is an act that exists across a continuum. The music can be fun, and it can be painfully serious. Some fans may not know he’s also a painter on the side — he’s been responsible for the creation of a few of the Avett Brothers’ album covers (including this newest one) and is also set to see some of his paintings exhibited for the first time this fall in a solo show at the North Carolina Museum of Art (“I was in art school and would have continued on that path if we hadn’t gotten so busy as musicians and songwriters”).
As far as the band goes, Closer Than Together is the sound of a group sticking to what it does best — singing the truth about the world, pulling no punches and confronting listeners with music that stops you in your tracks, whether you like it or not.
“I was put here to create,” Scott says. “That’s my contribution to this planet and this life. And I want to stress that everything we write is about our personal relationship with these topics. All we can do is say, ‘Here’s something I’ve thought about. Here’s how I see something. Here are the things I think about.’ I just come back to — if we have love in our heart, we can lift up and move forward.”
Update: Closer Than Together is out now. Stream it below.