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Turning the Past Into a Pile of Ash

The Avett Brothers' members study the past before soaking it in gasoline and burning it.
The Avett Brothers' members study the past before soaking it in gasoline and burning it.

At first, The Avett Brothers' "Yardsale" unfolds as a fairly straightforward study of the mundane items at a neighborhood yard sale: From plastic flowers to a blade that may or may not have been used, the selections are viewed from a bittersweet distance, as if the band merely wants to draw a character sketch of lonely and unloved household goods. As pretty as it is — especially once Scott and Seth Avett harmonize over the words "yard sale" — it seems to dance around a larger point, opting instead for musings on war, out-of-tune guitars and lovers in the shade.

But then, three-quarters of the way through "Yardsale," the North Carolina brothers shift gears radically, speculating about how nice it would be to buy the whole lot, soak it in gasoline and "burn it for all that I care for the past / and rid Mother Earth of what never should last." It's a hairpin turn, thematically, but it snaps the whole song into focus: It's one thing to hold on to souvenirs and symbols, but another altogether to try to derive value from them once the attachment is gone. Some junk is worth something only for the freedom its absence creates.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

This column originally ran on March 15, 2007.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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