Political songs are a tough beat. They can’t be too preachy nor overly earnest or else they’ll fall on deaf ears. The best ones, it seems, tie the political to the personal in such a tangle that, even if you don’t relate to the problem, you relate to the person. Gretchen Peters’ “Lowlands” and Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” are both recent examples of hitting that mark.
With Closer Than Together, the Avett Brothers step into this particular arena, while not abandoning more familiar ground, all with mixed results. On this album as all the rest, though listeners certainly catch glimpses of their influences — whether that’s Bob Dylan or the Clash — the Avett Brothers’ melodies, harmonies, and arrangements are unlike any other band’s.
Straight out of the gate, the breakup sketched out in “Bleeding White” pits opposing forces against each other with gutsy guitars taking on a plunky piano as it turns left and twists right. The anti-colonialism addressed in “We Americans” goes the other way, though, deploying the kind of acoustic sparseness and clunky phrasing that only the Avetts seem to be able to get away with. “New Woman’s World” is also somewhat awkward it its feminist bent, though it’s awkward in a breezier way.
The politically minded song that works the best, here, is the gentle “Bang Bang” which, as might be expected, takes aim at gun violence. With only a piano, some strings, and a little harmony, the bridge sums it up fairly well: “Conceal and carry your fear. Don’t need no weapons here. I’ve had all I can stand of the bloodthirsty leading man.” It’s a bold statement, to be sure, because they, no doubt, count more than a few gun owners among their fans.
The boys take other chances, too, with spoken word segments and synthesizers. But, when the Avetts revert to their default mode — sad song string band — Closer Than Together gets them there, as on “Long Story Short,” “When You Learn,” “Better Here,” “Who Will I Hold,” and “It’s Raining Today.”
Though the album, on the whole, is inconsistent, in a calamitous time when so many artists refuse to speak any truth to power, the Avetts Brothers gave it a shot. For even just this, the Avetts get an A for effort.