When the Avett Brothers first teamed up with Rick Rubin in 2009 on the band’s commercial breakthrough, I and Love and You, it was safe to assume they were drawn to working with the super-producer based on his famously stripped-down Americana work. After all, the Avetts tend to posture, both aesthetically and musically, as out-of-time antebellum-era troubadours who’re going to cure their broken hearts one banjo lick and sad, old-timey harmony at a time. But four albums into their collaboration with the Bearded One, it’s beginning to seem like the Avetts—brothers Scott and Seth, along with an ever-increasing group of cohorts—have grown more and more attracted to the side of Rubin who produces the likes of Lady Gaga and Kanye West.
Whereas a decade ago, the presence of an electric guitar would have been a bold departure from their austere traditionalism, their latest, True Sadness, is full of squiggly synths, bubblegum melodies, drum machines, and syrupy Hollywood strings. While the experiments in modern techniques here vary in effectiveness, they at least spur the band to capture the spontaneity and jubilance of their often rapturous live shows—a spirit that often gets lost when they pack their albums with painfully sincere, stone-faced balladry. In fact, it’s when the Avetts lean back on their standard neo-bluegrass style that True Sadness is at its dullest.
The album begins with lead single “Ain’t No Man,” which is Exhibit A in why the Avett Brothers gently refashioning themselves into sorta-kinda pop artists allows them to explore a broader and more exciting aesthetic palette than they could have ever achieved with their eight-dozenth bluegrass lament about the depth of their love and how really truly sorry they are for not showing it more, sweet darling. The track turns a deceptively spartan arrangement—just a chipper, boppy bassline, kick drum, electronic handclaps, and vocals—into a full-sounding, feel-good anthem.
In terms of instrumentation, it’s the polar opposite of the album’s other bookend, “May It Last,” which, all gussied up with strings, keyboards, and psychedelic vocal filters, is full-on symphonic pop, sweeping and grand and melodic. On both songs, Scott Avett’s gritty, twangy vocals mesh surprisingly well with the poppy sheen of Rubin’s production, just as Seth’s more finesse delivery fits “You Are Mine,” which is Wings-level fluff—bloopy synths, superfluous baroque piano line, insipid Hallmark-style romantic lyrics, delightfully sugary melody, and all. The pop touches even encroach on the more traditionally minded material like “Satan Pulls the Strings,” a roiling bluegrass barnburner that the Avetts inexplicably augment and/or sabotage with an overbearing, pulsating synth line that almost sounds like the accidental result of deciding to record the song in the middle of a shitty nightclub.
As hit and miss as the out-of-character experiments on True Sadness can be, they still serve to highlight how drab and formulaic most of the album’s contrapuntal Americana material is. Granted, Scott and Seth’s old-timey harmonizing on “Smithsonian” is a thing of beauty, and the Jimmie Rodgers send-up “Divorce Separation Blues” is at least mildly funny (pretty rare for these self-serious guys), but bland, sappy balladry like “No Hard Feelings” and “I Wish I Was” just take up space doing the same old thing on an album on which the Avett Brothers otherwise strive to do something different—like have fun, for a change.