Growing Up Before Our Eyes (And Ears)

February 9, 2010

It’s been a few years since I’d heard from him, and I could tell that something was different. He seemed more sure of himself, comfortable in his own skin, and willing to take some new chances. And as Seth Avett threw a seemingly insignificant vocalization into the bridge of the title track of The Avett Brothers’ album I And Love And You, I realized that the fraternal band had taken a great leap forward.

As pop culture becomes more fragmented and monoculture becomes a thing of the past, acute genre specialization can sometimes discourage artistic growth. Even in sub-cultures where experimentation is valued, experimentation itself becomes the status quo; actual evolution can stagnate. Thus, leaps like the one that the Avett Bros have made are not frequent, and are all the more shocking and energizing for it.

In the Avetts’ case, the leap was from a good-to-great band, one that melded bluegrass and punk into a sometimes messy, always fun strum and stomp through the Carolinas, to a refined rock band that defies categorization and wears its earnest heart proudly on its rolled-up sleeve. The involvement of legendary producer Rick Rubin, the hirsute Rasputin behind the late career revival of Johnny Cash and the early career shenanigans of the Beastie Boys, certainly helped; together, they distilled the bands strengths until they were 200 proof, sanded the rough edges, added the missing instruments, and came out the other side with the most coherent album of their career.

The rewards of their efforts have been swift: late night talk show performances, main stage booking at music festivals, critical adulation (Paste’s #8 album of the decade), and the real holy of holies: distribution at Starbucks, though that’s more of function of their new, major-label backers than the quality of the record, if we’re honest. The band’s breakthrough creativity has allowed them to carve out a new public identity as critical darlings, a more distinguished promotion for the former cult heroes.

Leaps like these are not without precedent in pop culture. Gifted artists have a way of finding the essence of their earlier work and pushing past its existing boundaries until something resembling perfection is achieved. The result is often a cultural landmark, like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or The Royal Tennebaums. Go back and listen to Wilco’s pre-YHF output in sequence, and you find a very talented band without a concrete identity playing around with some of the very elements that made their subsequent brilliance possible. Likewise, Wes Anderson’s masterpiece picks the themes and visual tics that worked well in Rushmore and Bottle Rocket, and puts them front and center, thereby creating an intricately detailed fantasy of New York and the eccentric Tennenbaums.

These two examples are merely a toe in the water. Certainly you know that moment, when a piece of art connects with you at such a core level that it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. Maybe it was the first chorus of “Do You Realize??” or Heath Ledger’s kinetically fiendish pencil trick in The Dark Knight, the visceral gut punch of an episode of Breaking Bad or the verbal rollercoaster of Outkast’s “B.O.B.”, but in an instant you know that entertainment has been surpassed by beauty, and distraction by awe.

As humans in a broken world, we ache for occasions where we can observe forward progress. Though it’s satisfying when a band springs fully realized from the primordial ooze, it’s even more fulfilling to watch a band struggle and stumble before finally pulling it all together. It gives us the hope that we might do the same, and the joy of experiencing beauty in a world marred by imperfection reminds us that perfection is not an improbable utopia but an eventuality that requires vigilance and appreciation to observe.

The preceeding was to have been released before the album dropped, but I got lazy, so here it is because it kept mocking me from my hard drive for being unpublished.


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