"We write all year long, and as we put it together, nobody can say, 'This record is going to be like this.' It's obvious in the writing," says Avett. "There's a dark and serious tone and, well, life's like that. What if this record's not as raucous as the last one? Well, if we pretend to be raucous, that's not going to work. So we found the tone we were needing to engage in, we wrapped our arms around it and pushed it and tried to emphasize it, and I think Rick (Rubin) was good for that for us."
In fact, "I and Love and You" began like most of the Avett Brothers' previous albums, which may have caused the most fortuitous problem in the band's history. Heading into the studio with Rubin for the first session on "I and Love and You," the band hit a snag almost immediately.
"The first song we recorded after the demos was Laundry Room, and it was the song that set the tone for us," says Avett. "We started attacking it just like we do live - banjo, acoustic guitar and stand-up bass - as far as making it just like the live experience, and we were having a hard time with it. We were not acclimated to the studio or to the song as it was so we backed off. The next day we started and we said, 'Let's do it with guitar and piano. It doesn't have to be what we do live. That's our call.' We cut the abrasion off it, sort of. It was kind of pointed and sharp and really abrasive and when we cut that from it, it set the tone for the album, absolutely."
With a brand new vibe inhabiting "I and Love and You," the Avetts have also gone back to their existing catalog to update some of their older songs to reflect their new approach.
"We've actually reworked some of the old songs in this form, like me on drums and Seth on piano or Seth on acoustic guitar and me on drums or Seth on drums and me on electric guitar. It's the old Bob Dylan trick. Really it's a trick that all musicians realize, the more they play. It's an obvious decision or obvious turn. There's not much rocket science to composition of songs instrumentally as you think when you're a young man. You think that it's so key and so important that they're presented in this certain way, and then you realize there's a million ways to present these songs. And Dylan's the best example for a guy who's broken that down to nothing. It's an opportunity we have to add some more dynamic and surprise for the people who enjoy being surprised."
In that sense, "I and Love and You" is clearly an album that signals a new direction for the Avett Brothers. While their bluegrass/country/roots rock context remains the same, the path they'll take to get there has just gotten a whole lot more scenic.
"There's a pain in my heart for guys like Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon or Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix. It's obvious, the direct tragedy of their lives, but secondary is what would have come of the change if they'd matured as men and artists and gotten past the self-destruction," says Avett. "I understand that directly, and I can see myself on the other side of that. I'm 33, and everyone has this 27-year-old thing they go through as an artist. And we're over that. We realize that it's more like a Tom Waits or Neil Young approach. There are a lot of songs to be found and to find us. The fans that are in for the ride are the ones that get the most out of it, no doubt about it."
Two of the more esoteric aspects of "I and Love and You" are Scott Avett's amazing paintings that adorn the packaging - a weary woman graces the slipcase and portraits of the band are featured inside the gatefold - and Seth Avett's beautifully written mission statement for the album. Scott's paintings are definitely a departure from the Avetts' previous bold, graphic designs.
"I wanted the artwork with the album much more tasteful and thoughtful rather than promotional, if you will," says Avett. "I really didn't want to go into it thinking about what would sell records or look attractive."
As to Seth's powerful essay, it may have come at the end of the process, but it was no afterthought.
"Just like Emotionalism and Mignonette, we put together the concept as it went, so the mission statement was written well after the album, and it was based on the title," says Avett. "It was an outlet for Seth to use his brilliant formal writing, so it was definitely the icing on the cake."