I don’t really know if it’s more upsetting for an album to be bad or just mediocre. If The Avett Brothers’ new album, “The Carpenter,” lacked their usual charm and depth, it would be easy to write it off as a failed effort. If they did not deliver their distinctive creativity in crafting songs, I could write a diatribe about how The Avett Brothers have lost their touch. Instead, it is a much more difficult album to grapple with. If you consider yourself a fan of The Avett Brothers but you haven’t heard any buzz about their new album, it’s because there’s no reason for it — good or bad.
The album features a diverse number of very good tracks, from the clear, sweet “Father’s First Spring,” to the sassy “I Never Knew You” and the rollicking “Live and Die,” which is the first single off the album and an obvious standout. But they’ve done all of these things much better in the past. All of these songs have their betters in “Swept Away (Sentimental Version),” “Distraction #74” and “Will You Return,” respectively. Their inventive mixture of genres — country, bluegrass, punk, folk, pop and more — comes through on the album, but perhaps not as cleanly combined as in previous efforts. “Paul Newman Vs. The Demons,” for example, comes off as a strangely contrived effort for something more hard rock.
There is a characteristic depth to much of The Avett Brothers’ music — a distinctively down-home outlook on the world couched in well-produced songs that is extremely comforting. Hearing them sing, “If I live the life I’m given / I won’t be scared to die” on “The Once and Future Carpenter” feels much more profound than it would in any other circumstance, and it takes real talent to make such a simple statement feel like a life philosophy. There are tear-jerking, beautiful songs as well, such as “Through My Prayers,” where they croon “Every night after and every day since / I found myself crying when the memory hit.” At least half of the songs deal with death and much of the album carries a real weight. Individually, these songs would have a place on any other Avett Brothers album. However, instead of making it feel more substantial, that heaviness seems to get stuck, bringing down the album.
If this album had followed “Emotionalism,” it would have seemed like a logical movement forward, a progression in their ouvre towards something a little different. Instead, it follows “I and Love and You,” a huge, sweeping album, vastly different from much of their earlier work. It’s confusing then, to see them take a step backwards, not necessarily in terms of quality, but in style. “The Carpenter” sounds like a Rick Rubin-produced version of “Emotionalism” and does not show any sort of musical growth. “The Carpenter” isn’t a bad album by any means — I’ll have it playing in my car for at least a few weeks — but I’m not going to rush out to play it for everyone I know. At their best, The Avett Brothers demand to be shared, repeated, felt with every fiber of one’s being. This is not their best.