Magpie and the Dandelion, the Avett Brothers’ eighth album, and their third under the aegis of super-producer Rick Rubin, is the direct counterpart to 2012’s The Carpenter, recorded during the same sessions and boasting a similar roots-pop sound. An exercise in “youthful wonder,” according to the press release, Magpie engages in a stagy thematic contrast with its predecessor, which frequently meditated on aging and mortality. Unfortunately, while the same functioning parts appear on both releases (twined banjo and guitar lines, stomps, strings, and Beatles-esque piano melodies), the new album finds the brothers’ once-sturdy songcraft turning clunky.
Magpie opens strong with “Open Ended Life,” a reflection on commitment that rocks harder than anything else here, holding off the album’s general malaise with some wailing harmonica, rockabilly guitar licks, and hoedown fiddle. “Morning Song” manages some plaintive irony when every member of the band joins Seth Avett in singing the final, repeating line, “I have to find that melody alone.” After the folk-rock grooves of “Another Is Waiting” fade, though, the album becomes unrelentingly sedate, even banal. The Avetts’ lyrics have long occupied straight-shooting, plain-talking territory, and the brothers usually manage to stay on the back porch and out of the pulpit, leavening their penchant for offering moral advice with strong narratives and occasional flashes of wit. But stanzas like “Bring your love to me/I will hold it like a newborn child/One of my own blood/And I might even sing a song to keep it calm,” from “Bring Your Love to Me,” reduce the ostensible “youthful wonder” of the album to mere sentimentalism.
Magpie isn’t entirely without energy, pathos, or creativity: “Vanity” revisits the genre-mashing work of the Avett Brothers’ earlier albums like Mignonette with a quirky quasi-metal guitar solo, and “Souls Like Wheels,” which was recorded live in concert, is effectively atmospheric, with a delicate ragtime lilt. But such moments are rare and diffused among an unfortunate amount of sappy filler. Too many edges have been sanded off the brothers’ music, and whether the blame lies with Rubin’s influence or the accelerated writing pace, the result is an album devoid of the band’s usual charming lyrics and adroit melodies.