For better or worse, romantic run-ins tend to stay with us. Be they would-a-been near misses; dried-up debacles; or outright drag-outs, these experiences stick with us, shaping our concept of love and relationships. A slew of such run-ins are chronicled in the Avett Brothers’ “Pretty Girl” series. Altogether there are eleven released “Pretty Girl” songs in the series, if “Letter to a Pretty Girl” is included, as it is here. Each song is presumably about a different Pretty Girl that one of the brothers have either known, dated, or happened into while on the road. Like each particular dalliance, each song has its own unique rhythm and flavor, its own varying levels of emotional maturity. While each of these eleven tracks is worthy of listening attention, for the sake of space here I will break down what I believe are the most poignant songs in the series.
“Pretty Girl From Raleigh” is an exemplar of clever songwriting. In what is essentially a break-up song, the singer starts by asking the Pretty Girl why she is so angry, though at heart he already knows and is jockeying for some impossible blameless position. He thanks her for blowing up and precipitating the end of their relationship, because he was having trouble justifying its continuation – even though he didn’t have the huevos to end it himself. This is captured completely in the third verse, where, in a post-mortem, he states that she always thought he was selfish, that when he told her he cared about her he was lying to her face, and that she can let go of him because, after all, she was right about him. His callousness is further heightened when he bids her goodbye, telling her he’s on a long drunk and doesn’t want her sadness to drag him down. He ends by stating that he would like to sympathize and tell her something reassuring, but he can’t because that sentiment isn’t there.
The tables are turned in “Pretty Girl from Cedar Lane.” Here the singer is the one distraught. He’s been sitting on the rooftop all night long waiting for Ashley, the pretty girl in question, who fails to show. As the night has progressed, as he’s drunk the whiskey all alone that they were supposed to share, he’s come to the realization that she’s not coming for him because, while he thought the feelings were mutual, she really did not actually want him. The thought of serenading her at her bedroom window crosses his mind, but he’s too sad and weary to follow through with such a grandiose romantic gesture. (Not to mention that he knows in his heart of hearts that it would be pointless anyway.) We leave the singer as he continues to sit on the rooftop “like a mixed up little kid,” thinking how there was only a fleeting moment where he truly loved her – when he first saw her and was enamored – but that moment has come and gone in a flash, and he’s just left drunk and alone.
Next we meet Gabriella, the “Pretty Girl From Chile,” whom the singer says needs more than a friend, something which he can never offer. While he’s tried to play the role for her, he simply doesn’t have it within himself to provide what she truly needs, so it’s time for him to move along. Here he shows a similar hardness-of-heart as he does in “Raleigh”: he states that he’d like to think of himself as “faithful,” but that could very well be another lie he would tell (lies being having been doled out plentifully, we can safely deduce). Halfway through the song, the rhythm and tempo change, the initial bouncy banjo traded in for aggressive staccato guitar chords. The singer gets down to brass tacks and asks Gabriella, “Have I let you down?” While he admits his untruthful tendencies, he shows growth in that he genuinely has not meant to hurt her and is getting out before he inflicts further damage. The banjo and guitar build and build – overdubbed by a voicemail message left by Gabriella herself – finally resulting in electric distorted guitar, revealing just how strong the regret and torment is for the singer.
“Pretty Girl at the Airport” is all about resignation. The singer stands with his ex-lover at the airport, preparing to see her off. They both know it’s over; he repeats again and again: “I know, I know.” What he knows is that things have to end, that they need to part for good. While their relationship has been marked with his immaturity, he is now mature enough to acknowledge that she cares about him, but this is just how things have to be. He concedes that he’s not the right one for her, and while it’s painful and lonely-making to break up, he wishes her well in her continued journey. The bleakest part of this melancholic track is the third verse, in which he paints a picture of her alone at the terminal, no one to take the flight with. It’s a lonely journey, life is, he says, and even those who share their beds with others feel the loneliness creep in from time to time. It’s simply unavoidable, though that doesn’t make it any less difficult to bear.
The latest installment in the “Pretty Girl” series is “Pretty Girl from Michigan” off 2012’s The Carpenter. With this track, the singer is questioning why he wasn’t more of a dick to this particular Michiganite; if he had been, he reasons, he would have made it all easier – he would have saved himself time and her, heartbreak. He seems to cringe at the memory of opening his mouth and making promises on which he knew he wouldn’t be able to make good. Simply, he should have known better. Now, he understands why she has so completely cut him off; after all, someone had to, and given his track record, he wasn’t going to be the one to do it.
These five offer just a small glimpse into the wide range of emotions expressed to these Pretty Girls. As a platform for communicating regret and (late-coming) honesty, this series is a key part of the Avett Brothers’ body of work. Not only do they show the emotional growth of the brothers as men, but also their musical growth over a decade or more. Reaching back into their (presumably painful) romantic memories, the Avett Brothers synthesize their misdeeds and break-ups into art, offering us as listeners what could in theory serve as cautionary tales – though in all likelihood we are doomed to make similar mistakes.