The Phosphorescent Blues is a wildly varied album that finds Punch Brothers once again pushing their classic string band/bluegrass instrumentation into weird musical arenas far outside what’s typical for this sort of lineup. In other words, it’s full of delightfully unexpected ideas, which is exactly what’s become expected them.
“Familiarity” opens the album with a ten-plus minute epic that finds the band in a similar milieu as “Movement and Location”, the opener of their previous album, Who’s Feeling Young Now? There’s a lot of speedy banjo and mandolin picking as part of an esoteric arrangement that has more in common with 20th century art music than anything in the bluegrass, country, rock, or pop annals. But as befits its running time, there’s a lot more going on in “Familiarity” than fast picking and complex arrangements. For example, when frontman Chris Thile’s rhythmic mandolin riff shifts to actual notes and the rest of the band joins him just before the three-minute mark, the groove they find isn’t far off from progressive rock.
A switch to choral harmonies backed by low-end bowed double bass transitions the band into a warm guitar and fiddle-led section that resembles a bluegrass song — for about a minute, at least, until it fades away into nothing. This silence is then replaced by a slow, spare coda that gently expands into a bluegrass ballad anchored by Thile’s passionate singing. Lyrically, the song finds Thile conflating annoying pop music earworms with friendships, and eventually, a loving relationship. This is served with a side of disdain for the technology that allows this kind of disposable pop to propagate through our lives through our various mobile devices. Yeah, there’s a lot going on in “Familiarity”.
The Phosphorescent Blues also finds the quintet putting classical music covers on an album for the first time. The band has been playing various pieces live for years, and Thile himself put out an album of Bach arrangements for mandolin in 2013. Here the band does a nice little (58 seconds) Prelude by Scriabin, and a much more substantial take on Debussy’s “Passepied”. The latter is light and jaunty, to the point where the uninitiated could mistake it for a pleasant and inventive original instrumental tune. The arrangement is wonderful as well, giving all five instruments a chance to shine over the relatively brief three minutes and thirty seconds.
The album seems concerned with the intersection of technology and humanity in several places beyond its opening song. “I Blew it Off” is a self-deprecating lament about ignoring the outside world in favor of life on the internet, set to one of the catchiest and most straightforward songs the band has ever done. Producer T-Bone Burnett joins in here, adding drums and electric guitar to the mix, which don’t sound out of place with the acoustic main instruments. Burnett’s influence on the arrangements shows up on album closer “Little Lights” as well. Lyrically the song is a nice bookend to the album, as Thile sings much more positively of listening to and singing favorite songs amongst the lights of technology. As the song grows from quiet ballad to full-bodied jam, the drums come in again as the band brings in a chorus of outside voices to sing along in the refrain.
Elsewhere, the songs run the gamut from traditional bluegrass to difficult and cerebral. The upbeat “Boll Weevil” lives up to its title with an energetic full-on bluegrass arrangement that finds the ensemble embracing their standard bluegrass roles and having a good time doing it. “Julep” is a quiet little ballad that goes to all sorts of interesting places in its instrumental passages, all the while anchored by the wistful refrain, “Heaven’s a julep on the porch”. “Magnet” is what passes for a Punch Brothers rocker, featuring an impassioned vocal performance from Thile, once again embracing his role as a caddish rock star, a theme he’s periodically returned to since Nickel Creek’s great 2005 song “Helena”. This time out, he creates a love interest that’s just as forceful as him, countering “I pinned her to the wall and said I wanna take you home / Think about it” with “She threw me to the floor and said I wanna take you home / Think about it”. The musings continue from there, while the band pushes, pulls, and slides around on their instruments and subtle kick drum and tambourine enhance the intensity of the song.
“Forgotten” is a track that pushes its minor key feel to the limit, emphasizing the darkness and tension, except on the harmony-laden chorus, where everything resolves into the reassuring mantra, “Hey, there / It’s all gonna be fine / You ain’t gonna die alone / You ain’t gonna be forgotten”. The album’s penultimate song, “Between First and A”, begins as an illustration of why Punch Brothers can be such a difficult listen. The arrangement is unusual, and the main riff is complex and not particularly melodic, although it’s catchy in an off-kilter way. But when the band hits the chorus, the song shifts into a genuinely danceable groove that comes close to disco-infused ‘70s pop. It’s a pleasant musical surprise that the group sits on for a little bit before letting it fall away, never to return.
Punch Brothers clearly aren’t for everyone. By writing challenging songs and largely eschewing traditional arrangements, they are in a unique position where they can equally alienate mainstream pop and rock listeners who may be into Mumford and Sons as well as fans of more standard bluegrass. The group seemingly goes out of its way to earn the “progressive bluegrass” label, a genre that they’re the leaders of and have very little company in. But they’re great at what they do, and The Phosphorescent Blues is another triumph for the quintet. The music here is unique and exciting, even if the band appeals largely to music nerds and have to struggle outside of that demographic to find an audience. As a music nerd, I’m glad they’re out there doing what they do.