The Avett Brothers are growing up. Long and wrongly pigeonholed as simple Southern boys straining their bluegrass upbringing through late-blooming obsessions with rock 'n' roll (when the opposite is true), the Charlotte trio of Scott and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford took their rising popular card and turned it smartly turned into a chance to showcase their polyglot tendencies for their fifth studio album, Emotionalism. Gone are the ramshackle tape collages of Mignonette and the stomp-until-you-cry outbursts of last year's Four Thieves Gone. Instead, The Avett Brothers of Emotionalism are gentler and more refined, ballads dripping with soul music harmonies and complex contrapuntal arrangements. Suddenly, that string-band spirit that's cultivated legions across the country is holding its cultivators to pop music standards.
Indeed, Emotionalism is a chance to showcase previously obstructed Avett underpinnings, but bearing that burden of proof sometimes causes awkward stumbles: See the stacked harmonies of "Will You Return," slowing the motion and tempering what should be an album-shaping outburst. Opener "Die Die Die," with its simplistic drums and chartable pattern, seems apologetically normal, much like the rest of the disc. The most raucous moments here—Paleface's appearance on "Go to Sleep" and the electric-guitar outburst of the four-movement "Pretty Girl from Chile"—are canned or stilted and awkward, respectively. Several production decisions and arrangements just don't quite support the more stylized decisions. At many points, the album sounds thin, shallow even.
Stylistic diversions and failed opportunities aside, The Avett Brothers remain as they always have been, slightly wild fans of rock music playing acoustic instruments while charting romantic missteps as empathetic roadmaps for the less experienced, then setting them on fire with wanderlust. Some of their best work is right here: "The Ballad of Love and Hate" personifies the amorous yin and yang, Love giving a young man breath as she slips in the taxi he drives and stealing it right back when she leaves. "The Weight of Lies"—a scarred ballad communicated by a man who's old enough to know, and one of the most compelling songs the band's ever written—braids shuffling rhythms with a narrator who's discovering the truth in settling down.
If The Avett Brothers were ever going to shift gears, this was the right time. There's a married Avett with a family garden, and this band's talent warrants a legacy as more than a sweaty party band with broken strings and hearts. This disc can't erect that monument alone , but it's a pedestal offering proof that The Avetts have more than foot drums and sore throats.