The great divide between the Avett Brothers’ raucous live shows and their records’ restraint continues on the North Carolina quartet’s major-label debut. But I and Love and You still represents a serious change-up. With Rick Rubin producing and all parties bearing down as never before, the album is poppy enough to make Ben Folds jealous — and not just because there’s more piano than banjo.
No, they’re not hollering so much, and this is as close to perfectly in tune as the Avetts have ever sounded. But more than anything, I and Love and You proves how miscast the Brothers were as folkies, because their ambitions are so much larger. They have always evoked the Band’s Music From Big Pink, but this album’s epic sweep and dramatic lyrical imagery (“There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light”) enlarges that influence to the scale of arena-rock sing-alongs.
In contrast to the prettier sounds, the songs’ lyrics ruminate about obsession and insanity. The overall theme is the crippling desire of being “Ill With Want,” as one song puts it. “Tonight I’ll burn the lyrics,” Seth Avett croons, “’cause every chorus was your name.” You do miss those moments of raucous, redemptive release, the explosion that I and Love and You implies without ever quite delivering.
But that’s what the live show is for.