The Avett Brothers newest album The Carpenter wants desperately to find the perfect contrast between dark lyrics and major-key folk music. The results are hit or miss but nearly without fail dark and depressing.
The band’s technical skills are evident on many tracks, most notably “A Father’s First Spring,” which melds guitar and banjo instrumentals fluidly and explores the idea of a new father being forced to leave his daughter behind.
The album’s opening and title track, “The Once and Future Carpenter,” best accomplishes the contrast of light and dark and opens the album with a complex single-note run on an acoustic guitar that transitions fluidly into an upbeat, classic folk-style verse and chorus.
The aptly named “Down with the Shine” lazily works its way forward in a ¾-time signature, and weaves a catchy melody with a well-placed horn section.
But the band’s technical skills are, ironically, most evident on the songs that don’t work. Clearly, the Avett Brothers are talented musicians and songwriters, so hearing them swing and miss completely is especially jarring.
The most blatant case of this is the penultimate track, “Paul Newman vs. The Demons.” After spending the 10 previous songs working with their usual stripped-down sound (if less stripped-down than previous albums), the Brothers try to write something with a little more rock tooth. The result is an awkward, somewhat atonal song that begins with screeching feedback and an out of place acoustic guitar followed by a drum beat that carries on much too long before falling into a boring chorus that couldn’t stick in the listener’s head with the help of a glue gun.
Musically, the album hits its deepest emotional valley on “Winter in My Heart.” A violin and acoustic guitar make for a sad, bare bones feel, and the lyrical content, as might be expected given the title, does little to relieve the mood. It’s the kind of song one would listen to while sitting on the porch with a bottle of whiskey and a handgun while staring out into the middle distance and trying to convince oneself to pull the trigger. Given the subject (the loss of romantic love), the song feels excessively and heavy-handedly dark.
Admittedly, “Winter in my Heart” is the darkest song on the album, though “Through My Prayers” gives the title track a solid challenge for that belt. But the lyrical darkness moves from song to song seamlessly. “The Once and Future Carpenter” talks openly and comfortably about being ready for death (“And when the black cloak drags upon the ground, I’ll be ready to surrender”), while the finale (named, ironically, “Life”) discusses the fleeting nature of our humanity (“We’re not of this world for long”).
The Carpenter is musically light and conceptually grim. Thinking about death in any capacity is difficult, and The Avett Brothers spent the entire album trying to think about death in just about every capacity, which will turn away some listeners and attract others.
It’s tough to fault The Carpenter for its darkness, but it’s also difficult to laud it for the somewhat forced bravado with which it presents that darkness.