There are rare moments in music history when the pairing of artist and producer make an album that’s perfect for its place and time. Synergy becomes a nearly sacred and wholly genuine result, and the album seems instantly assured of long-standing greatness.The Beatles and George Martin. Bruce Springsteen and Jon Landau. The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol. Such cosmically significant pairings result in works that reinvigorate their genres.
But when it comes to producer Rick Rubin, that synergy seems more the rule than the exception. Consider his work on Johnny Cash‘s American Recordings albums, or his revitalisation of Neil Diamond‘s music on 12 Songs, or the balance of toughness and finesse he brought to The Dixie Chicks‘ controversial Taking The Long Way.
Now enter the Avett Brothers, a trio of scruffy North Carolina indie-folk guys whose body of work has a level of quality matched only by its inconsistency. Their excellent live show and beard-of-bees word-of-mouth had already earned them a not inconsiderable indie following, but wide appeal seemed stunted. Those who knew them loved them, for sure. But the masses beyond the hipster neo-folk demographic didn’t know them.
Their music is nothing fancy: simple acoustic arrangements with a distinctly – but not overbearingly – Appalachian bent. Brothers Scott and Seth take turns on vocals, and they both have disarmingly lazy southern drawls coated in a scrap-tin rasp. Their lyrics tend toward the sentimental and the whimsical. Bob Crawford’s bass is upright, and the piano playing is true and honest as the day is long. And on I And Love And You, Rubin acts as a fourth band member, filling out the soundscape with well-placed organ, strings, tuba and harmonium arrangements that are just displaced enough to push the music past its previous boundaries.
I And Love And You is a distinct product of the band’s hard work and seemingly effortless knack for poignant songwriting. It’s still got the scruffy hillbilly charm that made Country Was so great. But Rubin’s influence, understated as it may be, is undeniable, and the resulting album is embedded with just the right level of polish and unexpected arrangements to turn a ragged group of pickers and grinners into a genuine distillation of American popular music.
The title track opens the album slowly and somberly with all the heartfelt tenderness of a winter’s sunrise for a transplanted country boy stuck in a big city. “Oh, Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in,” the Avetts sings over pensive whole-note piano and a lilting string quartet. “Can’t you see the shape I’m in?” The sentiment of trying to express such a complex emotion as love will become a theme throughout the album, and its effect is nearly palpable. Avett sings of a girl who’s got “eyes that shine like a pair of stolen polished dimes.” This is love on the run, and unrequited love at that.
January Wedding is a barefoot country love song in which the girl is portrayed with such rare backwoods beauty that her pull becomes something of a siren song: “She knows which birds are singing, and the names of the trees where they’re performing in the morning.” In the stirring piano ballad, Head Full Of Doubt/Road Full Of Promise, the Avetts issue another central challenge: “Decide what to be and go be it.”
The album’s infectiously boisterous standout track, Kick Drum Heart, is a raucous saloon brawl with plunked ragtime piano, frenzied percussion and rock ‘n’ roll bravado to spare. The Avetts sing of pursuit: “It’s not the chase that I love. It’s me following you.” Slight Figure Of Speech is the album’s other loud one, and it’s a nice reminder that the Avetts don’t take themselves too seriously, and that sock-hopping has its place right alongside quiet introspection.
The album closes somberly, as it began, with the slow acoustic Incomplete And Insecure, in which the Avetts ask: “Will I ever know silence without mental violence?” And the haunted refrain plays long after the album’s close, leaving a deeply emotional lasting impression: “I never finished a thing since I started my life. I don’t feel much like starting now.”
Fortunately for us, I And Love And You serves as a stark denial of that self-defeating closing statement. The album is beautifully realised from top to bottom, and it presents a bold and impressive statement of all that Americana is capable of. The Avett Brothers have made an important record – the most important of their career so far – and it’s sure to be a contender for best record of the year. I And Love And You is nothing short of a masterpiece, and that rarest achievement: an instant classic.