After a measured path of artistic progression (4 studio records, 2 live records, and a few EPs), Emotionalism stands as the Avett Brothers breakthrough record. It contains the foundation of songs that has brought them to the brink of widespread acclaim.
From Concord, NC, the Avetts reflect many modern southerners that are looking to find something real amongst the plasticity of today. Their songs evoke the same Carolina small town sketches that noted director David Gordon Green explored in his early films. Their music is primarily acoustic-based led by harmonizing vocals, peppered with a sense of Brian Wilson innocence. They capture that Wilson cheer that simultaneously masks and raises larger questions about emotional pain, loss of innocence, and ultimately, mortality.
Emotionalism's loose theme is a stark look at the emotional pain we cause one another and how this make our lives harder in the process. These recordings take its title to heart displaying an approach which embodies an earnestness that is sorely needed today.
The album kicks of with the banjo-driven Die Die Die which sets the larger theme of the record by musing about of our own mortality. Shame follows sounding like a Phil Spector song stripped-down with banjos replacing the "Wall of Sound" and the Ronettes backing vocals. If you wonder how this could possibly work, you've found the essence of the Avetts brilliance:
And everyone they have heart, and when they break and fall apart
They need somebody's helping hand
I used to say just let them fall, it wouldn't bother me at all
I couldn't help them now I can
Emotionalism marks the debut of many of Avett favorites like Paranoia In B-flat Major, a therapy session filtered through an old time ditty as well as The Weight of Lies which examines the cost of lies spun and weaved and where it leaves us:
The way that lies will bring you down, and follow you to every town
Cause nothing happens here that doesn't happen there
When you run, make sure you run, to something and not away from
Cause lies don't need an aeroplane to chase you down
This sense of maturity runs throughout Emotionalism. It is an album about growing up and facing the difficulties found as youth naturally passes into adulthood. It can be painful and dark at times, but also it can be a source of joy.
The Avetts provide some of their greatest insights examining the emotional pain between men and women. Pretty Girl From Chile deals with the aftermath of selfishness in love. The male narrator has hurt a girl from Chile and admits it through song - "I'd like to say that I'm a faithful man but it might not be true. Each scar makes it harder for me to hurt again."
At the end of the song, we hear a real voicemail from "the girl" in which she reacts to his apology by not admitting any of the pain he cause her. At this point the song finishes with guitar blasts replacing banjo. Few songs make their point as directly. Some might find its direct nature somewhat off-putting, but it is true and heartfelt. Nothing hurts longer than hurt not admitted or understood.
Chile leads to All My Mistakes delving more into the theme of regret, but this time with a sense of optimism in finding redemption from pain - "I can't go back but I don't want to / cause all my mistakes they brought me to you." This loose song cycle turns here towards a more mature point of view and and leads into one of the most beautiful Avett songs to date.
This song, Living Of Love, chronicles the search for pure love. Pleading to find an emotional sense through the power of love's redemption, the Avetts' gorgeous harmonies sing out:
Say yes we live uncertainty, and disappointments have to be
And every day we might be facing more
And yes we live in desperate times, with faded words and shaky rhymes
There's only one thing here worth hoping for
With Lucifer beneath you and God above
If either one of them asks you what you're living of
Say love, say for me love
The two brothers can't be any more clear in their intent. The love they write of is not that of youth built on innocence. It is one that come from pain - the kind that ultimately allows us to transcend the pain
The album ends with Hand-Me-down Tune, a story song that uses an old suit as a metaphor for the loss of innocence. The songs makes the great and amazing observation of how our clothes give an outside view of our inside heart. Are we too worn out to be good enough for real love?
All in all, this album may one of the most important independent releases of the last few years. It affirms the dawning of a major new talent and shows how indie sensibilities could deeply influence the traditions of old time and bluegrass by bringing something new without changing what was true and pure about the old.
- Jim Markel