“Somewhere along the way, the line between music and life faded…With the disappearance of this division, the songs have become increasingly reflective in their nature…[T]he songs are open, honest, and to some extent, autobiographically accurate…“True Sadness” is a patchwork quilt, both thematically and stylistically…There are moments of undeniable celebration and camaraderie, others of quiet and lonely exhalation…They came together because they are the best patterns we have and because each of us brought our own fabric to the quilting frame.”

-Seth Avett, excerpts from an open letter on the new Avett Brothers record

I know, it’s not good writing etiquette to start an article with a quote, let alone such a lengthy one. But I don’t really care, because I want you to understand the soaring expectations I had for True Sadness. After reading Seth’s letter, in the months leading up to the release of the record, I was expecting nothing short of a masterpiece: the ultimate culmination of the best moments of the 1035x698-20131210-avett-x1800-1386694348Avett Brothers’ sixteen year career. I wanted a record that infused the rootsy, honest twang of albums like Four Thieves Gone (2006) and Emotionalism (2007) with the grand production and pop rock sensibilities of I And Love And You (2009)I wanted a record that was as uplifting as it was heart-breaking and melancholic.

What I wasn’t expecting was a record that was as emotionally unconvincing as it was poorly written. And let me tell you, True Sadness is both of those things.

Scott and Seth Avett’s fourth record with famed producer Rick Rubin, True Sadness isn’t as much of a quilt as it is a clusterfuck, containing a myriad of unconvincing stylistic directions. The album is terribly inconsistent, featuring electronic, pop, psychedelic, and folk cuts jumbled up and thrown into a tracklist with no purpose or common thread.

Much ofTrue Sadness seems to be a cheap vie at commercial popularity, complete with campy, shoddy songwriting and gross electronic production juxtaposed with the last remnants of the Avetts’ Southern flavor. The record opens with its teaser track “Ain’t No Man”, a radical and unpleasant sonic departure for the group. The song’s instrumental is razor-thin, featuring a cheesy, clap-along electropop beat and a brittle bass guitar.  Seth and Scott deliver a cringe-worthy, Southern pop anthem about believing in yourself. Yippee!

Rubin and the Avetts continue experimenting with electronic production throughout this record. The instrumental on “You Are Mine” sounds like a disgusting industrial hip-hop take on “The Wheels on the Bus”. The following track, “Satan Pulls the Strings”, features wonky synth bass distastefully AB_2014_Hi-Resjuxtaposed with Southern viola leads. It comes off as a novelty Western electro-industrial tune, something you and your friends would sarcastically listen to on Soundcloud because it’s hilarious that some amateur idiot created it at all.

Other cuts are nothing more than pale imitations of other artists’ sounds. “Divorce Separation Blues” is a Hank Williams rip-off, complete with cheap yodels copy-pasted straight from the country legend’s “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”. The subsequent and closing track, “May It Last”, contains rich string arrangements and a spacey psychedelic melody, but ultimately proves to be stealing heavily from Pink Floyd.

The rest of the album’s material is just watered-down, gutless remnants of the Southern bluegrass folk that Scott and Seth Avett once specialized in. The songwriting is subpar. The melodies are cliché and forgettable. Rick Rubin’s production, once clear and punchy on I And Love And You, is muddy and incoherent. Bass, drums, banjo, guitar, and viola bleed together into incohesive sonic blobs on tracks like “Smithsonian”. Scott Avett’s once prominent banjo is pushed way back in the mix, sounding nearly nonexistent on songs like “Mama, I Don’t Believe” and “True Sadness”.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about these folk tracks, however, is the vocals. Seth and Scott’s once crisp, unabashedly rough Southern twang is MANCHESTER, TN - JUNE 08: (L-R) Scott Avett and Seth Avett of The Avett Brothers perform during the 2012 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on June 8, 2012 in Manchester, Tennessee. (Photo by Douglas Mason/Getty Images)absent from True Sadness. Scott sounds like he’s been smoking too much; his voice, now frail and meek, has lost its former presence and power. Seth’s harmonies lurk quietly in the background, doused in reverb and providing no punchiness or support (listen to “No Hard Feelings”).

Conceptually, True Sadness lacks a focused direction. Scott and Seth attempt to tackle a lot in the lyrics on this record, including love, death, sin, divorce, self-esteem, and fame, but spread themselves to thin to actually tackle any of these. The lyrical content on this album is occasionally poetic or funny, but more often than not trite and unimaginative. At times, Scott’s words become too vague (“If you’re rich, you hunger for money/If you’re broke, you hunger for bread” from “Victims of Life”) or obvious (“Life ain’t forever and lunch isn’t free” from “Smithsonian”) for me to handle.

Fortunately, the record has a few tracks with old-school Avett swagger. On “I Wish I Was”, Scott’s warm banjo and Seth’s silky guitar weave masterfully around each other, with Scott delivering tender vocals and heartfelt, even humorous verses. Still, if this was a cut off of Emotionalism, it’d be one of the weaker tracks.

The following song “Fisher Road To Hollywood” is the only one on True Sadness that I feel comfortable calling “kickass”. Simple, organic, blissful, this dreary ballad features buttery Southern harmony, hushed acoustic guitar, andAvett-Brothers brilliant lyricism detailing the Avetts’ fame and how it’s changed them for the worse.

Gorgeous moments like these are painfully few on True Sadness, however. Perhaps my biggest gripe with this album is that it doesn’t deliver what it promised, and I’m not just talking about Seth’s over-hyped open letter. I’m talking about the title. I was promised “true sadness”, or at the very least true emotion, and got none. Scott and Seth’s vocal performances aren’t evocative or inspiring, just bland and unconvincing. Their lyrics lack poignancy, heart, and purpose. True Sadness, although an attempt at autobiographical honesty, is the Avett Brothers at the height of inauthenticity and aimlessness, and lemme tell you, it’s not a very good look on them.

Overall: D

Instrumentation/Production: D-

Lyrics: D+

Melody/Hook: D-

Performance: D-

Mixing: D+

Highlights: Fisher Road To Hollywood, I Wish I Was

Key Lyrics:

“When I was a child I depended on a bottle/Full grown I’ve been known to lean on a bottle” from “True Sadness”

“I wish I was a sweater wrapped around your hips/And when it got too cold, into me you’d slip/And when the sun came back, you would hang me up/And I would watch you while you undress” from “I Wish I Was”

“When they replaced the apple wine/With cocaine and codeine pills/I knew I was done/And I didn’t really say goodbye/They’ll walk their path and I’ll walk mine/I will find another way/To tear my body down” from “Fisher Road To Hollywood”