You’ve probably known guys like Chris Thile in college or high school. They can nonchalantly pick up any instrument and play it as if they had been practicing since the day they were born. They’re just too pretty for their own good. They can make jeans and a T-shirt look like an especially commissioned Armani suit. Their charisma outweighs their ego at a ratio of two-to-one. Girls find them irresistible.
Guys like Chris Thile can be infuriating.
But Thile’s not your everyday debonair genius. He’s recognized as one of the best mandolin players in the world. He also lives the dream of fronting a neo-bluegrass band, Nickel Creek, that is equally lauded by hardcore traditionalists, young urban hipsters, and soccer moms and dads. A Grammy-winning band that is mentored and produced by one of the most credible names in Nashville, Alison Krauss. A band that covers Pavement and hangs out with Bela Fleck. How’s this for ideal: Nickel Creek’s two studio albums have sold a half-million copies each in the US alone, yet Thile could probably spend a day at the Mall of America without being bothered for more than a few autographs.
What’s remarkable about this story is that A: Thile is only 23 years old, and B: By all indications, he really is a friendly, down-to-earth guy who manages to keep it all in perspective.
Oh, and he makes solo albums too. Actually, Deceiver is his fourth, and his second since joining Nickel Creek. Listening to it, you can almost hear the clamor of ideas ping-ponging around in Thile’s head. Even at its mellowest, the album swells with the manic energy of someone who can barely contain his talent for — and love of — music. Deceiver is an entirely self-made project in the mold of Prince, George Michael and, occasionally, Paul McCartney. He plays everything, and I do mean everything: guitars, bass, drums, loops, fiddles, percussion, piano, keyboards, and of course his trusty mandolin. It’s easy to be charmed by someone who goes about his work with such gusto: overall, Deceiver is winning. But at times the results are more baffling than brilliant.
“The Wrong Idea” sports a naively romantic lyric (“I’m 19 / And I’ve kissed 2 girls that’s all”), but the arrangement is tough to grasp. After a piano-and-strings intro, instruments start and stop, come and go without really establishing themselves, and Thile’s vocal melody isn’t strong enough to hold things up. “Locking Doors” suffers from the same basic problem, while “I’m Nowhere and You’re Everything” meanders artfully but never goes anywhere.
When Thile focuses on tighter arrangements and stronger melodies, he produces some nifty results. “On Ice” sets a delicate, circling mandolin riff against an off-beat snare drum as Thile relates another awkward romantic encounter. “Empire Falls” and “The Believer” are pretty close to indie rock. On these songs especially, Thile’s warm, emotive voice and elastic phrasing so closely ape his friend and idol, former Toad the Wet Sprocket singer Glen Phillips, that it’s eerie. “The Believer” also features the album’s sharpest lyric and catchiest chorus: “God save the believer / We mistake for a deceiver / ‘Cause it makes us feel good”. Deceiver‘s most surprising — and impressive — piece of work, however, is the austere, minor-key mope of “This is All Real”. Thile keeps his musical itching at bay here and sustains an affecting, vaguely psychedelic mood that suggests the majestic chamber-pop of XTC’s Apple Venus Volume I.
To round things out, or maybe throw a bone to those bluegrass traditionalists, Thile adds a pair of instrumental mandolin pieces, “Waltz for Dewayne Pomeroy” and “Jessamyr’s Reel”. They’re nice, but on an album that reaches so far beyond even Nickel Creek’s musical palate, they sound almost out of place.
You may not love Deceiver, but you’ll find it almost impossible to hate. If you’re waiting for Thile to screw something up, you’ll have to wait a little longer.