February is sort of an introspective, gloomy month. The holidays are well over, and the glittering hope of January resolutions full of gazes forward is losing its effect. It’s cold, spring is still far away, and then of course there’s that annoying pagan tradition that occurs on the 14th (true story). February could really use a soundtrack to get just help people get through itself. Now that Punch Brothers’ new album ‘Who’s Feeling Young Now?’ has dropped, it finally feels like there is one.
The highly-anticipated third album from Chris Thile and his latest band is a shimmering collection of everything good that Punch Brothers is capable of, plus more. Certain tracks will have listeners wincing at the pain in Thile’s voice; others will leave a smile of chagrin in response to lyrics too close to home. As always, the band’s real life heartache and hope shine through the songs with a Fleetwood-Mac transparency. As always, the brilliance of crystalline mandolin and pulsing banjo saves the listener, reminding one of the beauty of February sun, even in the frozen badlands of winter’s heart.
The album opens with Movement and Location, which rips right into the drama of moody, complex arrangements and showcases Thile’s manipulation of a voice which grows suppler and far reaching as the song crescendos. Think early Chris Martin, back when the genius was fresh and the sound novel. Only unlike Martin, Thile doesn’t flaunt his voice, but rather uses it to frame the melody that his mandolin handles so eloquently.
This Girl switches gears, pulling back and lightening up. It’s a sweet love story of a man pleading to God for romantic intervention, with sunny harmonies and a dawdling melody. The humility in which the man makes his request is disarming. With lyrics like “If you would tell her it’s your will for us to be together / I would never bother you again unless you want me to / Hell we’ll just both hang out with you in heaven when we die” it’s hard not to fall for this catchy song that rings with innocence.
For having no drummer, the boys rock hard on the title track, Who’s Feeling Young Now? Thile has speculated that the band is finally to the point of having swagger; with a sexy beat the listener just knows this song is performed with a heavy amount of it.
Patchwork Girlfriend is a quirky little song that brings to mind Sally from the movie “Nightmare Before Christmas”, a love song about a girl with “blackish blondish brownish reddish grayish (grayish?!) hair” who “even as left hand pushes me away her right arm holds me”. The song could be interpreted in lots of ways; is she several girls in his mind, or something more literal- and morbid? After all, marrying her would “be against the law even in Utah…”
As if the genius of the Punch Brothers brain trust wasn’t enough to warm up the listener, there are two tracks on the album – Hundred Dollars and New York City – that were co-written by none other than Josh Ritter, who is a good friend of the band. While New York City is getting more exposure, Hundred Dollars is the more unique of the two. Gabe Wilcher, the band’s fiddle player, takes lead vocals, and is not afraid of letting his voice scratch the bottom of his range with funky success that flows right along with the slinky melody. His voice sounds a lot like Thile’s; the listener might not catch it at first. But that’s another reason their harmonies work so well on every track of this album.
Another goody: Kid A, a Radiohead classic, gets the newgrass treatment. It comes out softer, more poignant. The ease with which cacophonous noise can be recreated by strings in this piece is surprising. Kid A is a nice treat late in the album when that feeling of ‘No, it can’t almost be over…’ creeps up.
The last track on this album, Don’t Get Married Without Me, is a breakup song with hope, or hopeless delayed delusion, depending on how one looks at it. It might be one of the best songs on the album, though it probably won’t get the airtime of some of other tracks. The lyrics are painfully vulnerable and true, and alternate between saying goodbye – “Taking a break is dragging out a breakup too long”, and just saying goodbye for now – “’Til I cozy back up to you this fall”. The song also contains maybe the best line on the album – “I know you know I still love you, anyone else is a lateral move.” And it’s not just the meaning of the lyric – It’s the way it’s sung, and the way the rhythm of it gels with the banjo and guitar. Once again the complex arrangements dazzle. Is that a harp? No just some beautiful mandolin and banjo.
When Thile cries out things like “don’t get married without me” the listener can feel the desperation in his voice. And for some reason his desperation makes one feel a little better. No one wishes bad memories on anyone. But if the Punch Brothers boys are going to keep churning out great music pulled from nightmares, lamentations and cautionary tales, maybe they ought to let those memories marinate a little longer. That way the world has something to listen to as it kicks through the leaves of another unsettling winter.
Written by Nicole Banister
Below is Movement And Location live at La Cigale in Paris, France