The Punch Brothers’ long-awaited album The Phosphorescent Blues was released January 28th under the direction of T-Bone Burnett, producer of Coen Brother’ Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack. So far, it has superseded the expectations of both fans and critics. In response to the release, Joe Breen of the Irish Times gushed that, “Listening to the Punch Brothers is an exercise in wonder… Where did that come from? What’s that reference? Is that Debussy? Is that The Beach Boys? Is that bluegrass, blues, jazz, classical, rock? Who cares because that tune’s just beautiful.”
It is difficult to believe that the conglomeration of sounds on the album escape primarily from an acoustic mandolin, fiddle, banjo, bass, and guitar quintet. Performing plucky orchestral pieces (such as Debussy’s “Passapied” and Sciabin’s “Prelude”) and cerebral dramas (“Familiarity” and “My Oh My”), the Punch Brothers are jacks of all trades and at least masters of some. In the spirit of all folk musicians, even cover tracks are molded into distinctive creations as the quintet departs from tradition to — drawing a line from “Familiarity”—“make some music of your own, amen.”
The Punch Brothers’ experimental, avant-garde approach on their new release can seem unsettling and scattered at times. This was the intention. Lyrics such as “Pretend you love it because you love them/as you explode out of your phones, amen,” “Shine little lights of ours/Like Orion’s Belt of Stars/Connected only from afar,” and “There’s nothing to say that couldn’t just as well be sent/I’ve got an American share of 21st century stress” depict the artificiality and “plugged-in” loneliness of an age illuminated by the glow of smart phones and 140 character epiphanies. Chris Thile, mandolin wizard and lead vocalist of the Brothers, shares that the album discusses the “importance of connection, particularly in a world where it’s pretty easy to take being connected for granted.” Quirky, unexpected shifts even within tracks imitate our generation’s struggle with constant, electronic distraction.
The Punch Brothers have not only spun together a genre-bending triumph in The Phosphorescent Blues, but bravely ask the question, “Oh Lord/can you keep the whole world spinning under our thumbs?” for all of us.