The Avett Brothers’ The Carpenter finds the North Carolina natives navigating their second album inside the pressure cooker of a major label deal and shows a nearly perfect alchemy of traditional Appalachian folk and modern indie rock.
With the help of producer Rick Rubin, who also helmed 2010’s I and Love and You, The Carpenter continues to explore the poetry of the human condition, as evidenced by a clever title that alludes to building while also being vaguely spiritual. It could be a reference to that famous carpenter of the human soul from Bethlehem, or it could be about the carpentry that each person does to build themselves over the years.
Either way, the brothers’ grandfather was a preacher and, similarly, they have always seemed to be fascinated with the idea of soul. But now they’re a little older, a little wiser and confident enough to do some preaching of their own.
The album’s overwhelming theme is of life and death. How do we live fully? How do we come to terms with getting older and ultimately letting go of this world completely? What should we leave behind? Indeed, the first single is called “Live and Die.”
But contrasting that lyrical seriousness, the Brothers take care to balance things out with bouncy, playful melodies, more so than on I and Love and You, which was by and large darker sounding.
On top of the raw acoustic guitar, banjo, acoustic bass and cello that drew so many new fans to the band, the Brothers add a full drum set, electric guitar, lush piano and on “Paul Newman vs. the Demons,” a grungy modern rock sound.
But that’s not to say the Avetts have strayed from their original, authentic intentions. Even though it’s expertly produced, slight imperfections remain in wonderful places, such as the timely cracks in Scott Avett’s voice throughout “Winter in My Heart,” a song where all love has drifted away, leaving only a husk of a man. And their spine-tingling vocal harmony still stands out front, tugging at heartstrings and painting pictures of sound.
On “A Father’s First Spring,” we hear the thoughts of a new dad longing to see his young child. Each scene is spelled out with the skill of a novelist. And knowing that bassist Bob Crawford’s daughter is currently fighting for her life against brain cancer makes the sentiment even more heartbreaking.
Along those same lines on “Through My Prayers,” the guys come to terms with a loved one lost too early and the reality that they’ll never speak again or reconcile the argument that became their last interaction.
But knowing that a life is built from more than sorrow and longing, good times and joy are explored as well.
“Live and Die” is more of a celebration of learning how to live fully than anything else, while “Geraldine” tells the story of a beautiful woman showing up in a small town and shaking things up.
“Pretty Girl From Michigan” follows the recurring “Pretty Girl” format — there’s usually at least one song that uses the naming convention on each album — and it’s a standout for its energetic guitar leads and youthfulness.
But the most striking track on the album is the first one, “The Once and Future Carpenter,” which lays the foundation for all the soul-searching that follows.
Opening with a guitar run straight off a front porch in the Piedmont, it delights in shaking off the shackles of doubt and following your dreams, just like we can imagine the Avett Brothers doing themselves at one time. And if we take it for its words, we see that the carpenter of life in this case is not one’s self — or the spiritual leaders of old or even the world itself — but all of these things at once.
“Forever I will move/Like the world that turns beneath me/And when I lose my direction/I’ll look up to the sky. … If I live the life I’m given/I won’t be scared to die.”