Leave it to a bluegrass band to offer such an apt meditation on the modern condition. Anyone familiar with the Punch Brothers, however, knows the group’s artistic aims lie far higher than your typical bluegrass outfit.
The Phosphorescent Blues – a title inspired by the soft blue glow projected onto the faces of audience members as they scroll through their phones – utilizes the group’s eclectic acoustic chamber music as a means to explore the existential loneliness of living in the digital age. And while banjos and mandolins may seem like archaic tools for such an undertaking, they prove as effective as the reverbed electric guitars and synthesizers of post-modern heroes Radiohead and the like.
Led by former Nickel Creek front man Chris Thile, the Punch Brothers have built a reputation for a musical ambition that transcends their traditional bluegrass lineup. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the album’s opening ten-minute overture “Familiarity,” a swirling, impressionistic composition recounting the unsatisfied emptiness that often accompanies a morning after. The song’s dizzying counterpoint melodies and offset rhythmic figures mirror the hazy detachment in Thile’s voice as he sings “A call to prayer? / Or the last for alcohol? / We didn’t care / We knelt and bowed our heads / Or did we dance? / Like we might never get another chance / To Disconnect.”
Tracks like “I Blew It Off” employ more traditional pop song forms to express this collective anxiety. Thile sings in the Beach Boys-esque chorus, “There’s nothing to say / That couldn’t just as well be sent / I’ve got an American shell of 21st century stress.” The song is a kind of confession of distraction, sung over a backdrop of intricate harmonies and ornate instrumental motifs that are as elegantly crafted as a vintage Loar mandolin.
Amidst this unease, the album’s final song “Little Lights” offers hope in the very form of this hyper-connectivity. The group in effect crowd-sourced the song, enlisting fans to record and submit their own vocal tracks via their phones and laptops. The effect is truly cathartic, creating a fifteen hundred person group-chorus that closes the album singing, “Shine little lights of ours / Like Orion’s belt of stars / Guide as back to where we are / From where we want to be.”
Written by Ethan Varian
OurVinyl | Contributor