The Avett Brothers are obsessed with death. As easy as it is to forget the looming scythe of the Grim Reaper amid the band’s frequent talk of romance, conflicting morals, and endless barrage of “Pretty Girl” songs (here, we get the infectious doo-wop of “Pretty Girl From Michigan”), it’s always there, hanging in plain sight. And on The Carpenter, their seventh studio album, they speak about the topic more plainly than ever, as if inviting that curved blade to come slicing down through the air at any moment.
It’s a logical move, seeing as it’s been an especially rough couple of years for the Avetts and Co.. Bassist Bob Crawford has had to face the unthinkable since his two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer, something the band details with tender realism in “A Father’s First Spring”. Like “Murder In The City” before it, the song uses gentle acoustic plucking and ominous hypotheticals as both an expression and dissection of familial devotion. When Scott Avett sings, “I have been homesick for you since we’ve met,” in his sunrise tenor, he’s not referring to a girlfriend or wife, but a child that Crawford’s afraid might not be there when he gets home from tour. It’s a song just as concerned with love as it is with mortality. Later on, the couplet “The realest thing I ever felt/ was the blood on the floor and the love in your yell” brings a specificity to both the elation of life’s genesis and the fear of its premature conclusion.
But that specificity is curiously lacking elsewhere on the album, especially when it comes to its more morbid subject matter. Scott Avett recently told Rolling Stone, “I don’t know if the closeness to our hearts that some of these songs have will translate to the people. But I know how impactful and how heavy it is for us.” His prediction unfortunately rings true on several tracks. Anchored by the older Avett’s bubbly and always reliable banjo, first single “Live And Die” makes a yawning case for one to live life to the fullest before shuffling off this mortal coil for good. He’s right, of course, but there’s nothing lyrically or musically that elevates “Live And Die” beyond other stronger, similarly-themed songs, some of them penned by The Avetts themselves (see “Die Die Die” and “Incomplete And Insecure”). The tune skips along in the sort of sped-up, backwoods waltz we’ve come to adore an expect from The Avett Brothers as they urge people to “sing like a sparrow/live like a pharaoh anyway/even if there is no land or love in sight.”
Opener “The Once And Future Carpenter” puts the same advice to much more elegant use in the first-person perspective of its chorus: “And when the black cloak drags upon the ground/ I’ll be ready to surrender, and remember/ Well we’re all in this together/ If I live the life I’m given, I wont be scared to die.” The words work not only for their simple yet effective imagery, but also because they build several thematic layers by intertwining with vivid snapshots of life on the road. “Once I was a carpenter/ and man, my hands were callous/ I could swing a metal mallet sure and straight/ But I took to the highway/ A poet young and hungry/ And I left timbers rotting where they lay.”
With its roots in real-life loss, “Through My Prayers” has been described as one of The Carpenter‘s most autobiographical moments, although the identity of the deceased remains vague. It’s not that the listener needs to know who the person was — it’s better if they don’t. But some context of the relationships would lend a bit of much needed empathy and dramatic weight to the sonics. From beneath Joe Kwon’s mournful cello, Seth Avett rattles off ubiquitous anecdotes surrounding death: “I have some better words now, but it’s too late to say them to you”; “And my only chance to talk to you is through my prayers”; “If you have love in your heart, let it show while you can”; etc.. Coupled with the lonely music, these sentiments only let us know that someone at least one of the Avetts knew passed away, and that they didn’t leave each other on the best of terms. The person is dead and the living party is sad, wishing they had shown more kindness to their former friend or family member in life. The song could be about anyone.
And yet, maybe that’s the point.
Other than childhood pets, I’ve never had anyone especially close to me die. And apparently, until recently, neither have The Avett Brothers. “As we get older, a lot of the things we said in the past that we thought we believed about understanding life or death, I don’t know that we understood them as well as we do now,” Scott told Rolling Stone.
So maybe this is how one truly writes about grieving. Maybe the acute strokes and energized playing on the Avetts’ earlier songs about death were just overcompensation for them never having dealt with it in the first place. Maybe their newfound familiarity with the black cloak has pushed them to a more relaxed, straightforward sort of songwriting. Maybe a large part of dealing with death is not thinking about it in too much detail. And maybe The Carpenter, like many pieces of art, is a record that becomes more relatable with age and, most frighteningly, loss. For those of us that have been lucky thus far, we’ll have to wait and see.
Essential Tracks: “The Once And Future Carpenter”, “Pretty Girl From Michigan”, and “A Father’s First Spring”