Punch Brothers, ‘The Phosphorescent Blues’ – Album Review
“How do we cultivate beautiful, three-dimensional experiences with our fellow man in this day and age?” That was the question Punch Brothers frontman Chris Thile says the band was striving to answer on their fourth album, ‘The Phosphorescent Blues.’ It’s no doubt an ambitious undertaking, but it’s met with an equaled resolve from the Brooklyn five-piece by way of grand arrangements and even loftier sentiments.
After contributing a pair of songs to the 2013 Coen brothers film, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ and choosing Grammy-winning producer T Bone Burnett for their latest effort, the Punch Brothers certainly seem to be positioned to win over the recognition they’ve long deserved with ‘The Phosphorescent Blues.’ And the bluegrass outfit wastes no time making a statement.
‘Familiarity’ is the album’s 10-minute opener, a track that transitions from rapid-fire finger plucking to Beach Boys-esque harmonies only to change gears once more. From the get-go, the Punch Brothers are declaring that they are not afraid to explore and push the boundaries of their sound and the expectations that come with it. They go on to prove that very point with 'Debussy' and 'Scriabin' interludes, the swagger-filled ‘Magnet’ and bursting-at-the-seams pop hit, ‘I Blew It Off,’ the energy of which underscores the message Thile said drove the album.
“There’s nothin’ to say / That couldn’t just as well be sent / I’ve got an American share / Of 21st century stress / Your trouble vibrates the table / Interrupts my reverie / I blow it off / I blow it off / ‘Cause if it’s that bad / It ain’t getting better / Face to face with me,” Thile sings on the track, calling into question the supposed connections we make with all the technology now at our disposal.
However – despite beautifully ambitious acoustic arrangements punctuated by occasional drums and electric guitar for the first time on a Punch Brothers album – the band’s message verges on the didactic in ‘My Oh My’: “Out from underneath our thumbs / So let freedom vibrate, not ring / ‘Cause we can’t listen to everyone / Wanna hear ourselves sing.”
Though Thile’s crystal-clear vocals can bring poignancy to just about any musing, it’s here that his otherwise impressive songwriting becomes a bit heavy-handed. However, on the whole, ‘The Phosphorescent Blues’ is a masterful achievement in the mission set out by the Punch Brothers.