The Avett Brothers make no excuses for who they are or where they come from. Indeed, one need have only the most cursory of introductions to understand that everything about them – their musical instruments, their prevalent themes, their very accents – is distinctly southern. Yet in their oeuvre is an undeniable recurrence of New York City, one of the most cosmopolitan of locales. Juxtaposed with their ruralized roots, the city at various points in their catalog serves as a bucking bronco’s stamping ground; an alluring yet tiresome distraction; and a place of needed respite. In examining the roles that the city plays along the Avett Brothers’ musical journey, it’s clear that for these two songwriters – along with so many other dreamers and hustlers – New York is both haven and scourge all at once.
Four Thieves Gone opens “Talk on Indolence,” a barnburner if there ever was one. This tune is a powder keg, bursting with energy bordering on fury. On the whole, the song attempts to capture the frenetic pace of one’s 20-something years. It begins with a country-rap that chronicles a young adult’s struggle to comprehend his life and the speed at which the first couple of decades have blurred by; the lyrics address the rollercoaster-like, unmoored years after school, where attempting to get a hold on career and relationships seems like the thing to do but also feels sometimes unattainable.
New York is mentioned in the first standard verse: “Last night / in New York / I got raging drunk.” Those readers who have either lived or at least partied in New York know the nights referenced here, staying out till 4 a.m. or later, filled with drunken conversation, dancing, groping. And those readers who have ever experienced regrets and/or a metaphysical hangover will know the excitement and uncertainty which accompanies those nights. At this point, the city is a playground where heady mistakes and passes of varying levels of success are made in dark dives. It’s a fantasy land where fun of all types can be had, all while trying to nail down the reasons behind this frantic lifestyle.
The novelty of this wild, wild life seems to have lost its sheen on their next record, Emotionalism. Here, New York pops up in “Salina,” a traveling song of the weary sort. Reflecting the band’s touring nature, the song names various US cities; like a band on a tour bus, they are visited in passing, surrounded by mentions of exhaustion, of leaving, of the hope that the road will one day lead back home. When the city is addressed here, the singer says that he “won’t answer your phone calls no more,” telling “New York [to] quit calling” and to “leave [him] be.”
The desire is to eventually go home to “Carolina,” reflected as the banjo’s jangling is replaced with the cello’s lowing out soft, mellow notes. The plea for New York to quit beckoning shows that while the city is a great big place with lots to do and lots to offer, it can also be weakening to the spirit. The singer has progressed from “Talk on Indolence” and realizes that the playground is a younger person’s city – each year new graduates will move in to taste the urban lifestyle and chase their dreams, and each year people will age out and decide to leave for more peaceful burgs.
The aging process inevitably happens, and eventually one desires a home, a place that’s perhaps quieter than bustling Manhattan island. On the Avett Brothers’ mainstream breakout record I and Love and You, the title track addresses the city head-on, but this time honing in on one of the outer boroughs. “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in” the singer repeats. He’s heading north from troubled times to a new place, a new neighborhood, a new apartment. With a beautiful but weary tone, the song rolls out a scene of needing a place to hide and recollect, to be close to the action yet removed from the central chaos. Channeling The Band, the singer asks this new place whether she’s “aware the shape I’m in.” With age he’s realized that he can’t sustain the pace of life endemic to “Talk on Indolence,” also knowing that he’s strong enough now to eschew the city’s decadent temptations.
This song is about finding one’s true self after all those misguided attempts in his raging 20s. The “I” and “love” and “you” have become “hard to say,” one interpretation being that they have become hard to say to oneself while looking in the mirror. In coming north and moving to Brooklyn, he is opening another chapter in which he will convalesce from past pains and refocus on that which, one, drives him forward on his journey and, two, is simply most important.
A few other Avett Brothers songs mention New York either obliquely or directly – “Murder in the City” and “Famous Flower of Manhattan,” are two examples, respectively – but these three stick out in regard to how a single place can change its significance for a person over time. There is no shortage of things to do, see, eat, drink in New York: The city can mean so many different things to an individual given how long they’ve been here, who they are spending time with, which neighborhood they are living in, et cetera. Just as a listener approaches the Avetts’ wide-ranging and extensive body of work looking to glean some insight or inspiration, so too does a person come from Alabama or Minnesota or farther afield to New York City to discover not only what is possible but, more largely, what answer his or her soul is seeking.