ALBUM: The Phosperescent Blues
ARTIST: Punch Brothers
Album release date: January 23, 2015
A Muggy Meeting
My first exposure to Punch Brothers happened one humid summer day when I stumbled across their newest album, The Phosphorescent Blues. My curiosity had been piqued by the tragic but beautiful cover image: an oil painting of a man and a woman kissing one another through heavy shrouds which hide their faces from one another, barring immediate contact. The back cover is a photograph of the band members, all staring down into what appear suspiciously to be smart phones, their faces aglow with soft neon hues. Chosen isolation, the hubris of progress. I sat cross-legged in my muggy room, open and free from any preconceptions, and hit play: the rest is history.
I should point out that my lack of exposure to Punch Brothers says nothing about their repute and more about my proverbial residence under a rock: they have an impressive career behind them, stretching back to 2006 when the band was formed by frontman Chris Thile, virtuostic mandolin player of the former bluegrass/folk trio, Nickel Creek. According to Thile, Punch Brothers emerged out of a collective experience of heartbreak and relationships gone awry (Thile’s divorce from his first wife figures strongly into some of his earlier lyrics, and even now into this latest work). The band quickly burgeoned in the presence of collective talent, enhanced by the addition of Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Noam Pikelny on the banjo, Chris Eldridge on guitar and vocals, Jay Bellerose on drums, and Paul Kowert on the double bass. “The Phosphorescent Blues” is their fifth release, to date.
Deeply diggable, lyrically loaded
On the outset, you’ll likely tell yourself it’s a bluegrass album, with some polite nuances thrown in: only to find yourself being consistently surprised and humbled. Listening might remind you of the experience of realizing that the person you’re already digging is full of deeply diggable surprises that you never could have dreamed up yourself. All you can do is cherish their brilliant contours and thank God that they’re sharing themselves with you. “Familiarity,” the first track, opens with the sound of a lone mandolin dancing alongside Thile’s immensely attractive voice. Bit by bit, pulse by pulse, the other members of the band enter in, masterful and unobtrusive. Lyrically, we’re immediately introduced to one of the main themes of the album: the lack of true intimacy in our daily interactions, brought on by a crippling dependence on technology: a reiteration of the message expressed in the album artwork (were you expecting that? No, you weren’t. You thought it was all going to be about rain and cornfields). Thile captures the vague sense we carry with us that we have been duped out of imagination, reverence, and worship: our creative and religious impulses have been quietly stifled beneath an apparent ability to control reality according to our whims. “We’ve come together, over we know not what… Amen, amen,” he says, and then later, at the crescendo point of the song, he sings out in frustration – and something like fear – “I love you. I love you. I mean it: I want to feel it…God, help me feel it…”
A kaleidoscopic repetoire
The second track, Julep, is a gorgeous song written from the perspective of a man who has died as he looks over his life and relishes its greatest joys. “Heaven’s a julep on the porch,” goes the chorus, and Thile once again captures a universal experience – though this time one of carefree timelessness and being present to the one you love. A couple tracks on the album, Passepied and Prelude, show the bands’ classical chops, paying homage to Debussy and Scriabin, respectively; and then just as masterfully the band sets their heels firmly in the soil of pop-rock in the vibing I Blew It Off and the somewhat raucous Magnet– all without ever departing from their distinct Punch Brothers touch, and all while reiterating the same thematic point. In keeping with this kaleidoscopic approach, the music shifts back into rollicking, sophisticated bluegrass with the song My Oh My, which will make you feel cooler and smarter for having heard it, and might even take you by surprise with how prayerful it becomes during the immense and gentle chorus at its apex.
A unity of parts: a triumph of communal and technical excellence
Thile and company are probably too brilliant for their own good: the virtuosity of this album is challenging, at points repelling so. Yet there is something in this music – something that presses itself through every note Thile in particular sings and plays – that is evidently thirsting for the experience of “being with”. You feel you can trust Thile where he’s leading you: partly because you know he isn’t pandering to you: i.e., giving you what might be easiest for you to latch onto; and partly because you feel actively sought by him, or perhaps encouraged to seek alongside with him. Add to this the intense chemistry shared amongst the band members – they are harmonious in a way that makes one stand in awe of the power of human collaboration and the glory of musical democracy – and you realize that this is the kind of music that concretizes you if you let it, because it is nothing short of an encounter. Musical genius does not exist in isolation, and beauty involves a unity of parts operating in service of the whole. It’s obvious, too, that this is truly a triumph of technical excellence. If you were to put it down on paper, it would be mathematically gorgeous. Yet it feels as though it has simply fallen out of these mens fingers and throats, organically. This album is a testament to the human mind and heart and what they are capable of when placed at the service of something beyond themselves.