By Grant Golden
August 28, 2020
The Avett Brothers’ career has followed a natural ebb and flow across the span of nearly two decades. What began as a ramshackle, stompin’ and hollerin’ folk-rock project from brothers Scott and Seth Avett has since evolved into a genre-bending, stadium-filling affair.
With their last five records helmed by mega producer Rick Rubin, the stripped-down sound of their early work has almost all but disappeared, resulting in a mixed bag of takes from their fans. But prior to the global coronavirus pandemic and the unrest over racial injustice in the states, Scott and Seth made a decision to unplug from their grandiosity and strip back down to their acoustic roots for the highly anticipated third installment in their Gleam series of EPs.
Ever cognizant of their position in the world, the brothers announced the release of The Third Gleam with a somber message in black and white video, declaring that while The Third Gleam is a, “whisper of an offering in a time of blaring considerations…the songs of this particular piece do connect somehow to this particular time.” Throughout the eight-song EP, Scott and Seth are accompanied only by longtime bassist Scott Crawford, and traverse topics such as gun violence, incarceration, love, loss and struggles with faith.
With album opener, “Victory,” we see a vulnerability that’s been clouded with the pomp and fanfare of their more recent outings. Scott laments over struggling to see the bright side of life, outlining his self-doubt despite success. Powerful lyrics sit atop simplistic arrangements on The Gleam III and allow the Avett’s songwriting prowess to stand on display stronger than we’ve seen in over a decade. “Am I sad or am I sick” Scott sings. “What’s at the root of it?”
Emotional strife continually show up on the EP in songs like “Back Into The Light,” as Scott once again takes the vocal helm and outlines a narrative of battles with depression and addiction. The lyrics mention “surrendering to [his] shadow” and trying to drown his troubles at the bar, only to find out “what good swimmers they are.” This plaintive, heartfelt songwriting is what led most longtime Avett fans to their music in the first place and proves to be a welcomed return for those that yearned for their earlier sound.
It’s important to note that The Third Gleam isn’t just a victory lap for The Avett Brothers; Scott and Seth are also broaching all too familiar topics with a newfound maturity on this record. On tracks like “I Should Have Spent The Day With My Family,” Seth finds a way to intersperse socially relevant topics like gun violence with his own personal experiences. He outlines the battle that many families in America have to go through as we communally experience a national tragedy. As the song progresses, Seth tells the story of a crippling moment of realization when a shooting victim looks like his child. He struggles to focus on anything other than fear and uncertainty, and immerses himself in work as an escape from reality, rather than spending time with loved ones. It’s a poignant still life that reflects the stark reality of modern day America.
But not all of the album’s socio-political excursions pack the same punch as “Should Have Spent The Day…”. “Prison to Heaven,” for example, unfolds as the story of a prisoner’s outbreak and subsequent struggle with his faith, pondering if his sins will still allow him entry to heaven. But sonically it feels like a freewheelin’ jaunt that packs a few too many syllables into each rhyme scheme to feel like the concise and powerful point it could be. “Women Like You” also seems out of place on an album in 2020. While on the surface it’s an admonishing love song about a “special kind of woman,” it’s also packed with several outdated tropes. While there is a sense of self-awareness on the track, as Seth sings of men ‘rarely moving past a woman’s appearance,’ and ‘digging their own graves’ with judgement, he seems to miss the point that he’s leaning on observations that relish in a surprised complexity of women.
While The Third Gleam may not be an opus of social change, it is a record that ultimately excels at what initially propelled the Avetts to international stardom– earnest reflections on an ever-changing world. In times of social unrest that has people feeling more isolated than ever before, Scott and Seth Avett have once again crafted a universal record that revels in uncertainty and perseverance.