The Phosphorescent Blues
In reviewing their 2010 album, Antifogmatic, I noted that Punch Brothers were “rapidly evolving into a string-band version of Radiohead.” That assessment comes to full fruition on The Phosphorescent Blues, at once the band’s most obtuse and most accessible album.
Opening with the 10-plus minute suite of “Familiarity,” Punch Brothers have never been so forward with their hybrid of classical sophistication with prog-inspired Bluegrass, as the track ebbs and flows between “Amen!” exclamations right out of high mountain gospel and intricate vocal harmonies that would fit seamlessly on Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. The band’s technical virtuosity is on full display on the instrumental performances of wondrously complex arrangements by DeBussy and Scriabin.
While tracks of these sort have earned Punch Brothers a reputation for courting music nerds—as though that’s inherently a bad thing— much of The Phosphorescent Blues is slick and tuneful, proving the band’s deft hand with pop conventions. Lead single “I Blew It Off” finds frontman Chris Thile singing of his “bad case of twenty-first century stress,” and standout cuts like “My Oh My” and the provocative “Magnet” hinge on strong hooks and catchy melodies as much as on the band’s technical skill.
Though only about a third of the album’s tracks—most notably “Little Light” and the raucous “Boll Weevil”— scan as country or country-adjacent on first blush, the band’s roots in traditional Bluegrass are still readily apparent in their fast-picking approach and in the way they structure their vocal and instrumental harmonies. Genre purists will furrow their brows as they always have, but The Phosphorescent Blues is a progressive album in the very best sense of the term.
The album ultimately emerges as a heady deconstruction of contemporary disaffect, from the escapist POV of “Julep” and sexual politics of “Magnet” to the sense of displacement that runs through “Between First and A.” Both in terms of its aesthetics and its content, The Phosphorescent Blues is an album that feels very much of the moment: Its concerns are current and vital, and its perspective consistently faces forward. The Phosphorescent Blues may not be one of 2015’s best country albums— I’m no traditionalist, but even I would find that a hard sell— but it will surely remain one of the year’s best overall albums.
Recommended Tracks: “I Blew It Off,” “My Oh My,” “Magnet,” “Boll Weevil”