Chris Thile has become a bit of a cultural institution. As a member of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, he’s forged a sensibility of pushing bluegrass and acoustic music into the modern era with folk accessibility and contemporary abstraction. His collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Brad Mehldau, and Edgar Meyer reflect his versatility with genre-hopping, fitting in traditional music as well as he does with classical and jazz. His latest gig hosting Live from Here (formerly A Prairie Home Companion) is a perfect vehicle for his musical prowess, charm as a master of ceremony, and witty banter. Dude has a MacArthur “Genius” grant. Undoubtedly, Thile’s career is a clear reflection of how beautiful and thoughtful it can be to pushing boundaries in the right direction.
Thile’s latest, Thanks for Listening, is a collection of his “songs of the week”, tunes written weekly for his gig hosting Live from Here. The album is his first solo outing in nearly five years. His 2013 Bach recording was an homage to the Baroque composer, while 2006’s How to Grow a Woman from the Ground was effectively a proto-Punch Brothers recording. 2004’s Deceiver is the closest comparison from Thile’s career, a pop album he wrote, performed, and produced entirely on his own. Thanks for Listening is a much more diverse affair: lush textures, guest vocals, and a much broader musical scope. The album reflects Thile’s ongoing career as one of this generation’s finest musicians regardless of genre.
The intimacy of the album is perhaps its most striking quality. Unlike the post-modern contemplation of the Punch Brothers or the jazz abstraction of his Mehldau collaboration, Thile tends to focus on more personal issues with this collection. “Stanley Ann” is a touching ode to a departed parent with reflections of family and love sung over a haunting piano accompaniment. Opening track “I Made This for You” sings of marriage and fatherhood, sentiments made all the more tender by the layered vocal tracks. “Feedback Loop” is the most ethereal recording Thile has produced thus far in his career; a reverb-heavy affair that verges on the delicate side of psychedelic.
Complete control may have hindered the musical impact of Deceiver, but it’s this very sense of control that elevates Thanks. Specifically, Thile’s intuition for textures and arranging make it a rich affair that doesn’t stray too far into self-indulgence. “Thank You, New York” is the most pop-orientated track on the record, but it works as the instrumentation and arranging reflect lyric’s optimism and grandeur. The programmed bass and virtuosic mandolin runs of “Falsetto” casts a satirical gaze on the notion of celebrities discussing politics (“Entertainers better keep the entertainment light”). Likewise, Thile understands when to pull away. “Balboa” is stripped bare, just vocals and mandolin, a choice that perfectly reflects the sense of isolation and desire to simply explore the wonders of San Diego’s Balboa Park.
While the album explores a wide variety of colors, everything filters through Thile’s trademark of introspection and quirk. “Elephant in the Room” sounds like the dive bar gospel anthem the Punch Brothers never got around to recording. Title track “Thank you for Listening” contemplates the small conversations that reveal so much of the world around us, while “Douglas Fir” examines religious iconography (with the help of the always wonderful Aoife O’Donovan). The quirky mandolin work of “Falsetto” and structural evasion of “Modern Friendship” would sound disjunct in the hands of a lesser musician, but Thile’s mastery makes they sound as natural as breathing.
Thanks for Listening may be a best-of collection from Live from Here’s songs of the week, and this makes it a modern masterpiece. Thile’s introspective songwriting and ear for musical structure imbue the album with a different type of depth we don’t often hear in his other projects. The man may undoubtedly be one of the hardest working musicians in the industry today, and we’re all the greater for it.