I remember the first time I heard The Avett Brothers’ “I and Love and You.” I was driving with my uncle, not sure where we were going, but it’s more than likely we were going home. I don’t think I needed to tell you that; there’s no reason to romanticize something as fundamental as direction. After all, this is my memory, so why should you care where I was?
But I do remember the song and every step it took, that piano sitting beside Scott Avett in a way no person ever could, as both confidant and accomplice. The song begins with directions, “Load the car and write the note/Grab your bag and grab your coat/Tell the ones that need to know/’We are headed North’”. These words sway you, and if Scott appeared next to us on that night, I’m pretty sure we might’ve listened, not so much to escape anything, but more to see where he was headed. He sounded like he had somewhere to be, things to change. He was dynamic, adrift, and vaguely angry. In other words, he was a teenager. And so was I.
Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in/Are you aware the shape I’m in? I’m not exactly sure how much time I’d spent in Brooklyn before I heard that song, but I’m certain that it wasn’t enough to decide I wanted to live there. Only I did decide, because Scott Avett’s Brooklyn wasn’t a place. He wouldn’t have pointed to a map if you asked him where it was. I’ve been back to the real Brooklyn since, and I still like Scott’s version more, even though I’ve also never spent any quality time there and, a point that’s probably more telling, I’ve also never met Scott Avett.
To be honest, I knew very little about the dude; I still don’t. I know he paints and that he once tried to personify Love and Hate, but I’m pretty unsure about his personal narrative. I have no idea if “I and Love and You” is about him or about his parents or about characters in a book he read while stranded on a boat. What I’m saying is that I don’t know his legend in the way people know Justin Vernon’s or Katie Crutchfield’s, so that first time I heard it, “I and Love and You” built up an original legend in my head, even if it wasn’t Scott’s.
I’m not even sure that legend was mine, but let me get there.
When at first I learned to speak/I used all my words to fight. There’s so much to that line, so much that could speak to my 18 year-old-self, that would tell it not to write angry, or at least not to write angry all the time, and not to fight against everything that pulls, that some of that stuff is good. I wasn’t a dick when I was 18, but I also could have definitely had more friends. It’s such a waste of time.
And the piano is still there. It’s constant, and I’ll always have it. You stay close to those types of things, you think about them after the tide changes and you’re getting dragged out to sea, you start to think they will remember you.
Three words that became hard to say/I and love and you/What you were then I am today/Look at the things I do. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the conversation that came after those lyrics. I think about it every time I hear the song. It’s a part of the legend. My uncle asks me, “What do you think he’s singing about there?”, rewinding the CD.
“Here.” He plays it again, What you were then I am today/Look at the things I do. I’m still frozen by the piano, there’s no way I have an answer for him, especially since I know he’s already got one, and it’s probably really close to him, because this song obviously means something to people.
“I’m not sure.” I don’t think this was a lie. I still think I was being honest. That fucking piano.
“I think he’s talking about his dad, that his dad was an alcoholic, and he’s one now. I think that’s what he’s trying to leave.” The highway sets the traveler’s stage/All exits look the same.
I’m not sure if he’s right, and I’m actively avoiding finding out. Even if I met Scott Avett, even if I interviewed him, I’d never ask him what that lyric meant or what that song was about. I’m not interested in the band’s version anymore. I’m not even sure hearing it would make a difference. I’m fairly certain that there isn’t a single version of “I and Love and You” that won’t take me back to my uncle’s car, to that drive home, to his relation of meaning, his lucidity. And I know he used “leave” and not “run away”. I remember it because it was memorable, that distinction. He didn’t have the same fears as Scott Avett, but I could tell that there was a time when he did. I don’t think I ever would have learned that if it hadn’t been for that song, if it hadn’t come on during our drive home.
Do you think Scott Avett thinks about the song that much?
But there’s a reason for this story, an inciting incident, a motivation for writing about it right now, and it has something to do with The Avett Brothers’ new album and everything to do with the vacuousness of music criticism. Yesterday The Avett Brothers released Magpie and the Dandelion, a new LP that hasn’t been met with nearly as much fanfare as The Carpenter, which was their follow up to I and Love and You. The album opens with “Open Ended Life”, a song that preaches constant change as a source of happiness but paints by numbers when it comes to execution. Never before have The Avett Brothers been so far detached from their own music, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
After The Carpenter proved a mostly failed attempt by the band to make a “death album”, The Avett’s turned over a new record quickly, possibly to cover up their tracks from the last one. Magpie is noticeably more “fun-folk” than The Carpenter, but it refuses to surrender to the loud, reckless absurdity that made “Slight Figure of Speech” worth revisiting. In other words, it’s far too quiet. It even starts to sound like the soundtrack to a shitty romantic comedy after a while, like it was meant to be played over images of John Krasinski and Hilary Swank holding hands on a Ferris wheel.
But none of this is a bad thing because this album is going to mean something to someone. I’m pretty sure of this. In fact, I know this, and I know it because I’ve had people tell me I shouldn’t care about I and Love and You, that it’s kitsch, that it’s a minor Avett work, and I still do care about it, very much so. It’s probably one of my favorite albums of the past five years, and that placement has very little to do with its artistic merit. I could probably write 5,000 words on it and still feel unsatisfied but wouldn’t be able to muster nearly that many if you asked me to write about The King is Dead, an album that would probably find itself on that same list. It just never grew into a part of my life in the same way I and Love and You did. It’s not part of my story. You don’t have to listen to The King is Dead to relate to me, but you don’t stand a chance if you haven’t heard I and Love and You. It’s not that I’m any more complex than anyone else you might run into on the street; it’s just that I care far too much about something that other people spend 0% of their lifetime with.
And I’m starting to think it’s wrong to care. Well, not wrong, but just incorrect, that to care is to drown out your own voice with enthusiasm.
I mean look at Spin. They have a section labeled Worst New Music, and one of my favorite records from last year, The Gaslight Anthem’s Handwritten, was put under that banner. And man did I care about that album. I still have it in my car. And it’ll stay there until I get a new car, then it will move with me. It’s like an air freshener I sing along with when I’m struggling to stay awake. But can I care about that record? Does feeling the same way about “Mae” as my dad feels about Das Boot amount to anything? Is there anywhere to just write about how the music makes you fucking feel? Not in, like, an abstract way, but in self-serious discourse. If I wrote that the guitars on “Mae” sound like horns, that they helped me find a new entry point to listen to jazz, would it be worth reading?
Look at Pitchfork. They gave that first Airborne Toxic Even album a 1.5. A 1.5!! Is that even on their scale? It can’t be. You should get a 3.0 for being able to play four chords. But a 1.5? Because it wasn’t as good as Arcade Fire’s album? Because Ian Cohen wanted some guy who read a lot of Don DeLillo to be more like Win Butler, the good son of indie-rock? Why even write about the album? Why not just ignore it? It wasn’t a great album, but it was certainly enjoyable. It definitely didn’t earn that rating. Do you think he even listened to “Missy”? Or “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”? Those were solid songs, right? Why did he come off so angry?
Remember this summer when Lou Reed wrote that review of Kanye West’s Yeezus? How genuinely excited he was about it? How he looked at Kanye’s “crack the pavement” approach and gushed like a sixth grader meeting Selena Gomez? I don’t think I’ve enjoyed reading anything written about music as much as I did reading that, and it was because of his excitement, the way you could feel how he felt at every second of listening, how his excitement got you excited, how it made you go back and listen to the record, to take a new perspective. I remember how much I loved music that day, how I remembered how to love music. I also remember thinking that this is how we should write about music, that we should present perspective rather than definitive opinion.
Back on that night when I first heard “I and Love and You”, after my uncle dropped me off at home, I listened to another song that I’d given an original story to, NOFX’s “Linoleum”.
Possesions never meant anything to me/I’m not crazy. I’ve always loved that first line. It starts off the record and sets such a fucking nihilistic precedent. It’s the best characterization of punk rock I’ve ever heard, and it’s probably the best lyric of all time. I’m sure you don’t agree, but, to be honest, right now, I don’t give a fuck.