Murder in the City – The Avett Brothers
Murder in the City
Performed and Written by the Avett Brothers. You can listen to the recorded version in the official video here. You can buy the song here. Click here for a live version from July 2009 and here for a 2007 version.
“Murder in the City” features another facet of the Avett Brothers – a quiet, ruminative stream with unexpected twists and a performance that can break your heart. Hailing from Concord, North Carolina and playing a host of hardcore, hard-living songs that sound might be called speed country; a change of pace like this ballad can stop you in place. And the subject matter which catch you off guard as well, especially with the title. No violence here, no dark tale of bloodshed, instead, this song turns into a meditation on family and fate. Scott Avett provides the lead vocal while quietly picking at this guitar; brother Seth adds some minimalist piano. The music pushes the lyrics and vocals front and center.
It opens with a stark, even maudlin line, “If I get murdered in the City,” that is quickly followed with the unexpected:
Don’t go revengin in my name
One person dead from such is plenty
No need to go get locked away
You might expect a harder reply, think Paul Butterfield (“My daddy told me/You better get a gun”), but the Avett’s surprise with a reflective, practical, even philosophical moment.
In the second verse, the singer tries to throw off this dark thought,
When I leave your arms
The things that I think of
No need to get over alarmed
I’m comin home
The object of the song, the arms he left, are not those of a lover, but they are the arms of his mother, his family, his homestead. After opening with the dark possibility of his own murder, he now backtracks and tries to re-assure, “No need to get over alarmed/I’m comin’ home.”
As if he can’t help himself, the singer slips back to his ruminations on family:
I wonder which brother is better
Which one our parents love the most
I sure did get in lots of trouble
They seemed to let the other go
He turns to ask his father and receives a response that I suppose all fathers can understand:
A tear fell from my father’s eyes
I wondered what my dad would say
He said I love you
And I’m proud of you both, in so many different ways
I think back to the eve of the birth of our second child. I was so enthralled by our first-born, so enraptured, that I did not think it possible I could love another as much. I feared I would fail our second child. Then Jamie came along and I learned that the heart is infinite, that there is no zero-sum game of love between a father and his sons. I could love the second with equal fervor at the same time that both heart and mind recognized the differences in the two boys and love them in different ways. When our third child came along, I learned the lesson all over: there is no limit to a father’s love. As with the father in the song, to contemplate the possibility that one child would think he was loved less would break my heart.
The song imagines again the singer’s death and he offers practical advice. There’s a letter in his desk, a will perhaps, but he says,
Don’t worry with all my belongings
But pay attention to the list
The material things matter not. The list contains wishes of love for his family:
Make sure my sister knows I loved her
Make sure my mother knows the same
Always remember, there is nothing worth sharing
Like the love that let us share our name
“Murder in the City” weighs against the grain. The more common motif pits son against father, child against family. The child must flee the family or fight the father to find his self, to find freedom and manhood. The tradition of rebellious son runs from the earliest days of rock and roll (think the Animals and Bruce Springsteen) right through current hip-hop. Songs about the family are fewer and far between and often rest on clichés and sentimentality. Not the Avetts. We get genuine emotion, insights that give voice to thoughts and feelings that we may have felt, but not fully understood until Scott leans into the microphone and sings, “And I’m proud of you both, in so many different ways” and “always remember, there is nothing worth sharing/Like the love that let us share our name.”
I caught the Avett Brothers live for the first time this past Saturday at the Appel Farm Festival and left with feet tired from dancing and a heart both happier and sadder cause that’s what their music will do for you. Scott and Seth Avett alternate between guitars, banjo and piano and had three band mates on Saturday adding drums, bass (alternating between an upright bass and electric) and a cello. After a day of music and energy sapping heat, the Avetts took the stage and instantly resurrected the crowd. They draw rich catalogue of songs and displayed a great sense of pacing rising to frenzies like “I Killed Sally’s Lover” and narrowing the focus to quieter numbers like “Murder in the City” and “I and Love and You.” WIth their ballads, they recall the sadness of John Prine or the starkness of Johnny Cash. They arise out of the same well of Appalachian music that gave rise to the Carter Family and Doc and Merle Watson. Yet they grew up on music from the Replacements, Husker Du and the Ramones. They can play with the ferocity of the Ramones or early Violent Femmes, yet the have the depth and versatility of an Americana version of the Pogues. Like all great bands, you can hear the strains of earlier artists, yet the combine them in such a way the music is both familiar and unique.
You can check out the Avett Brothers website here.