Life's rich ephemerality. That's what Magpie and the Dandelion is about. The things in life we can never repeat. People we will never see again. Relationships that run their course. Words that will never be spoken or sung in exactly the same way. That moment in a concert we experience only one time. Once. Then it's over. Gone. Poof.
When the Avett Brothers went into the studio in early 2011 to begin recording their sprawling song cycle of the following year, The Carpenter, they actually brought in enough material for two albums. It was a heady, exciting session, ideas bouncing everywhere, new experiments attempted, used, discarded. But not everything fit neatly into The Carpenter's grand narrative about love and life, aging and mortality. So the Brothers put the extra songs on a shelf and hit the road to perform for their fans.
It was a tough tour. In September, bassist Bob Crawford took a leave of absence after his baby daughter, Hallie, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The next two years would continue to be challenging. Scott and Seth Avett's beloved aunt, Alice Haas, would die from cancer, and Seth's marriage would fall apart. The universal and remarkably mature truths the Brothers had explored on The Carpenter, in lyrics like, "If I live the life I'm given, I won't be scared to die," "You and I, we're the same‚" and "We're not of this earth for long‚" had become very immediate and very personal. It so happens that the songs the Avetts had put on a shelf reflected that sense of urgency.
"To me, The Carpenter was a more unified take on big themes, aging, death, mortality, whereas I feel like Magpie and The Dandelion is more in the moment, a little more electric, a little more kinetic," Seth Avett says from the band's hometown of Concord, North Carolina. "It feels more like a comment on things that are happening right now."
To Bob Crawford, Magpie is messier than The Carpenter, in all the best ways. "It's like a string ran through The Carpenter, beginning with the title song and ending with "Life. It was heavy, very heavy," Crawford says. By contrast, "The songs on Magpie kind of bark and shout. It's much starker. It's more destructive. It's harsher," he adds. "They're part of the same string, but they speak louder."
In fact, they scream and squawk, much like the magpie of the album's title. Beginning with "Open Ended Life," performed in the raw, country-rock tradition the Avetts have long mined, guitars, banjos, harmonica, piano and bright, breezy harmonies, Magpie and the Dandelion flutters hither and thither from spare, acoustic-based meditations ("Morning Song," "Bring Your Love to Me," "Part from Me") to melodic pop-punk ("Another Is Waiting"). There's a piano ballad ("Good To You"), arena-ready power rock complete with a minor-key melody befitting a James Bond flick ("Vanity"), and even a sublime moment captured live in concert ("Souls Like the Wheels," a gentle, bluesy ballad from the band's 2008 album The Second Gleam).
"'Souls Like the Wheels‚' is very fragile, very tender. I've only sung it one time and that recording is the only time it was ever played live," Seth says. "We put it on there partially as a nod to older Neil Young or Simon & Garfunkel records, where they'd put one live track in the midst of a bunch of studio tracks. I think it just adds a spontaneous element to an otherwise labored-over piece of work, one little place where it feels like at any moment the whole thing could just fall apart. And that's nice. It's another opportunity to have more variety and dynamics on a record."
In their 13 years of performing and touring, from small clubs in their native Southeast to big arenas around the world, the Avett Brothers have spent lots of time thinking about variety, dynamics and song placement. Early on, they just wanted to create the right mood and arc for frenetic shows full of ringing acoustic guitars and banjos, chirpy vocal harmonies, lots of hooting, hollering, hand-clapping and foot-stomping. When the Avetts took that explosive sound into recording studios, they initially sought to recreate the energy of their shows. Their earliest full-length studio albums for the Concord indie label Ramseur, Country Was (2002), A Carolina Jubilee (2003) and Mignonette (2004), were fine documents of specific moments in time, but it wasn't until the Avetts recorded Emotionalism, in 2007, that they began thinking more in the tradition of great LPs from rock's golden age, albums like The Band's 1968 milestone Music from Big Pink or Neil Young's 1972 classic Harvest. The Avett Brothers' subsequent releases, I and Love and You, in 2009, last year's The Carpenter, and now Magpie and the Dandelion, all produced by Rick Rubin and released on American Recordings, have thrust the Brothers into the pantheon of quintessential American bands. When the Avetts think of variety, dynamics and song placement today, the results are more novelistic. Today, the their narrative folk-rock tells bigger stories about what it means to be Southern, to be American, to be alive.
Some of those stories on Magpie center on the band members themselves. In "Vanity," they cop to being fully human, full of self-obsession but longing to be more spiritually centered. It's a song they couldn't have written in their younger years, says Crawford. "How much experience does it take for us to realize how vain we are?" he asks. "Almost everything we do in this life serves our vanity. We can't avoid it, we're vain creatures. But being conscious of vanity is something you don't see when you're young."
"Skin and Bones" is a variation on the same theme, characterizing the band as a beast that's grown out of control. "It's quick to drag you in but hard to shake," Scott Avett sings. "It gives but doesn't match how much it takes. / Growing stronger and loud, I lived it but now I'm wanting out." And then later, he asks, "How long can you live in shame, drop a life-long curse on your last name? Trouble is, I'm used to it."
"Man, that song represents our entire career," says Crawford. "There we were, in 2001 and 2002, driving around in a pickup truck, talking about songwriting, discussing how songs are crafted. We're working to make this our lives, where we get the right music and go out and travel around and play it live for people. Now, fast-forward 12 years later: We have families, we have responsibilities to these families, in my case, I have a special-needs daughter who has a terrible disease, and a son; Scott has two children; Seth's been through a divorce. Now, we're on this other journey. But we also have this monster that we've created and that now owns us. We're in this amazing position with this beast right now, and we realize it won't last forever, but we also have these greater responsibilities, these more intimate responsibilities."
One of those responsibilities is to see their success for what it is, and to speak out about the illusory trappings of celebrity. They do that on Magpie's first single, "Another Is Waiting," in which Seth warns young girls that popular culture does not mirror reality. "It's a fake, it's a hoax, it's a nowhere road where no one goes ... She's a rose, she's a queen, but she's staring at a magazine / In the dark, on the path, where they doctor every photograph." Says Seth: "That song is a strike against the big glamor monster, the whole body-image epidemic that we're so aware of right now. Young girls, anybody, really, but young girls, specifically, are at great risk of being conned into thinking they're supposed to be something that is 1) not them, and 2) not reality."
For the Avett Brothers, reality consists of close friends and family, and in keeping with the theme of ephemerality, one moment on Magpie documents something that truly is gone forever. It comes at the end of Morning Song after Scott Avett sings the line, "Even though I know there's hope in every morning song, you have to find that melody alone." The line is followed by a chorus of voices, repeating, "You have to find that melody alone."