Negative Space: The Avett Brothers’ New Album

A self-titled album from this Concord, North Carolina roots band sounds a lot like Scott and Seth Avett’s early days as a trio with Bob Crawford.
by David Menconi

In the life cycle of most bands, self-titled albums tend to be the first one they release into the world. But if an eponymously titled LP comes later than that, it often represents a transition — a get-back-to-roots move, or a reinvention.

The Avett Brothers (Ramseur/American Recordings), the 11th full-length studio album by Concord’s The Avett Brothers, feels like a little of both. Sonically, it’s a reconnection to Scott and Seth Avett’s early stripped-down days as a trio with bassist Bob Crawford. But aside from the jittery-paced first single “Love of a Girl,” most of its songs move at a slower, more stately tempo. And deciding what to call the album took almost as much effort as writing its nine songs.

“We had to do some intense mind-mapping and contemplating to get to that,” says elder brother Scott Avett. “We actually had several other titles that never quite did it. When we’d describe this album to people, a common theme seemed to be ‘less is more.’ And that seemed like the heart of what it was. That untitled area, negative space. People can do what they want with all of it.”

While the new album is the Avetts’ first since 2019’s Closer Than Together, the past five years have been an eventful stretch. Scott, an acclaimed painter whose artwork adorns most Avett Brothers albums (including this one), picked up solid reviews when his first museum show opened at Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art in the fall of 2019. Scott Avett: INVISIBLE closed in February of 2020, just before the pandemic. 

The Avett Brothers battled the shutdown with a series of socially distanced drive-in shows at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord. The pandemic shutdown also coincided with work on their first theatrical show.

Written by Tony-winning playwright and Avetts fan John Logan, Swept Away is a musical about a shipwrecked crew. And while the brothers themselves don’t appear in it, their songs give the story shape and character. It opened in Washington, D.C., this past November and picked up the sort of raves that should take it to New York – “Swept Away has proved itself worthy of a Broadway christening,” was The Washington Post’s take.

“The biggest misapprehension that theater people have about the Avetts is they do ‘sort of country music,’” says Logan. “No, they’re an Americana band that does pop, rock, funk, country-western, polka and straight-up power ballads. What impresses me about their catalog is the incredible range they have. So much of their writing is character-based, and there’s a theatricality about their music. The most important thing for me is I think their music deserves the widest possible audience.”

Being on the cusp of Broadway is a long way from the Avetts’ scruffy origins more than two decades ago. They started out busking all over the state, often from the back of a pickup truck with a piano, steadily building up a fanbase with a performing style best described as folk music in a key of wild abandonment.

They’ve acquired some fans in high places, among them movie director Judd Apatow, who co-directed the 2017 Avett Brothers documentary May It Last. Another was svengali producer Rick Rubin, who signed the Avetts in time to oversee 2009’s I and Love and You (their first gold record).

Since then, the Avetts have placed three albums in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 while steadily growing into a top-drawing live act playing festival stages from MerleFest to Coachella. The size of their lineup has grown, too, more than doubling to a seven-piece band.

That will actually complicate things a bit when the Avetts get back on the road this year for their most extensive touring since pre-pandemic times. Most of The Avett Brothers is quieter than a large lineup might allow.

“We’ll have the seven-piece show, and it will take our commitment to serve the songs what they need to be,” says Avett. “We’ll have to make sure not to give in to the temptation of overdoing it, with all of us banging away. That would kill the vibe.” 

After an opening vocal prelude, the first words on the album-opening “Never Apart” are younger brother Seth crooning, “Life cannot be written, it only can be lived.” That plays into the overall less-is-more theme, in which vibes and emotions take precedence over words. That’s in marked contrast to the preceding Closer Than Together, a wordy album that even came with a sociopolitical “Mission Statement” on the lyric sheet.

“No mission statement this time,” says Scott. “But there are other things in place, symbolism with drawings that accompany each song. I hope the lyrics will be all the mission statement it needs. We wanted to emphasize the negative space, which is a gift to listeners. That unfilled space is where everybody gets to make it their own.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.