Punch Brothers’ fourth Nonesuch album, the T Bone Burnett–produced The Phosphorescent Blues, addresses with straight-up poignancy and subversive humor the power and the pitfalls of our super-connected era. Digitally fueled isolation may be a theme, but this virtuosic acoustic quintet offers its warmest, most emotive and elegantly melodic work to date—so invitingly human in its approach that it practically ushers the listener into the room as these guys assemble in front of a mic.
Indeed, a longing for community and connection was both impetus and inspiration for this disc. Never a group that could be accused of taking it easy, Punch Brothers had been touring almost non-stop since the majority of them first got together to support mandolin player Chris Thile’s 2006 solo album, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground. (And whenever they did take a break from their official Punch Brothers duties, the individual members engaged in a staggering array of solo and collaborative projects with fellow travelers in the worlds of bluegrass, jazz, and classical music.) But in February 2013, after supporting the 2012 disc Who’s Feeling Young Now?—an album in which, a New York Times reviewer opined, the band “shifted the emphasis from instrumental wizardry to playful storytelling”—Punch Bothers decided to scale back the concert schedule allowing themselves the chance to interact musically and personally, away from tour buses and dressing rooms.
As guitarist Chris Eldridge explains, “There was a sense among all of us that we needed to dial it back a little bit and really give ourselves time to write a record where we didn’t have deadlines and weren’t under pressure to get something out. So we scheduled these writing retreats. The first was in May 2013. We got together for a week in Charleston, South Carolina. We rented a house, and we played a gig—and the gig paid for us to rent the place. We worked on music all day at a steady pace, but it didn’t feel as pressured as it had in the past. We had another one in Telluride, another one in New York. We had about five of them. It was really good for us to have the space to work on something. We could let a song sit for a day or two and then come back to it and ask, does it still feel great—or not? We never had that luxury before.”
One such retreat took place at Oberlin College, where the band had been invited to participate as artists in residence at its famed conservatory. They conducted master classes, talked and jammed with students, and played in the auditorium. Banjo player Noam Pikelny recalls, “We had our own room in the conservatory building, surrounded by all these students who are there working their asses off on their instruments and their compositions. To have the opportunity to work on our own stuff while being surrounded by all of that was very inspiring. We were in an environment where we felt a responsibility to make something very special because part of our audience was right outside our door.”
Over the course of the writing sessions, Thile relates, they had animated debates with each other and with the students, about how they relate to music, and to each other, through a digital filter. A narrative began to emerge that informs compositions like the rueful “I Blew It Off” and the ambitious, three-part opener, “Familiarity” which goes from spare and staccato to lilting and pastoral. No diatribes here: the words are often haunting and impressionistic, while the music boasts its own powerful eloquence.
“We started writing these songs,” notes violinist Gabe Witcher, “and had enough time to discover what they really are. And as we saw this story emerge, this narrative, we wanted to see if we could also tell the story sonically. ‘Familiarity,’ the trilogy, is probably the best example of that. It begins very dry, presented very plainly, no effects, as if these are thoughts coming from inside someone’s head. But, as this thing progresses, the craziness of the outside world envelopes the narrator, tries to get into his consciousness. It builds to a climax and then releases into this dream world. He’s not sure where he is—at a club, a church—or what he is hearing. The presentation of that is very dreamlike, otherworldly. The third piece is the morning after, if you will, presented very organically, as if we are just sitting around in a room playing a song. It’s like Sunday morning waking up—what happened last night? Reckoning with the reality of it all. Trying to enhance those themes sonically—that was another step forward for us in the story telling on the record. We touched on that in Who’s Feeling Young Now? as far as using the studio to enhance the music. Now we are really using the studio to help the narrative along.”
The Phosphorescent Blues is, in many ways, a slice of modern life, says Thile: “Going out after shows, we’d go to bars that were loud, where the music may not be ideal, to be around other people, to get a sense of the world for a second. And I’d see people just like me on their phones, telling people they wish they were there, texting people who really are there. Then some song would come on in real time and some person knows that song and then they see that someone else does too and maybe they both sing it together and that moment is spiritual, some shared experience, and they are interacting in three dimensions, in the flesh, with their fellow man. And that’s communion. ‘Familiarity’ and other songs on this record dive into that: how do we cultivate beautiful, three-dimensional experiences with our fellow man in this day and age?”
Shortly before the sessions began, Thile and Witcher met with Burnett and discovered the producer had the very same things on his mind. In fact, he’d just given a commencement address at the University of Southern California on the subject of technology and human interaction. Witcher remembers, “Thile and I looked at each and said, ‘This is unbelievable. It’s exactly what we are writing about.’ So this was a perfect, serendipitous union.”
That union was also a long time coming. Burnett had previously enlisted Punch Brothers to contribute music to the Hunger Games soundtrack he produced. They performed an even greater role on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, and served as the “house band” for the star-studded Another Day, Another Time concert Burnett organized at NYC’s Town Hall in September 2013. Having Burnett at the helm of these Punch Brothers sessions was a revelatory experience, even for musicians already so finely attuned to each other.
“T Bone understood what we were trying to do and helped us get it even further,” says bassist Paul Kowert. “He was like a coach and a teammate at once.”
“Even as much as we had worked with him before, I had no idea what to expect,” Thile admits. “T Bone works in mysterious ways. His genius is he manages to maintain perspective while being fully and utterly engaged and swept up in the excitement and frustration and hope and despair that goes along with trying to coax life out of these assemblages of notes.” In this setting, Thile delivered what are arguably the most expressive vocals of his career, on songs like “Julep” and “Forgotten,” bolstered by harmonies that the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson would approve of. “Singing while T Bone was in the control room, I felt what it was like for an actor to work with a great director. He would find ways to get me into my own lyrics. He might come at things with some observation about the lyric that would allow me to sing it not just as me but as a whole lot of people.”
Burnett himself added a discreet amount of electric guitar, most noticeably on “I Blew It Off,” and even convinced the band to add percussion on some tracks, a first for a Punch Brothers disc—integrated so artfully into the mix by drummer Jay Bellerose that one has to listen twice to even know it’s there. On “Forgotten” and “My Oh My,” Witcher could overdub himself into an entire string section.
Thile brought in the Passepied from Claude Debussy's Suite Bergamasque and they built it into an evocative full-band arrangement. Conversely, “Magnet” jettisons the cerebral for joyful reveling in the carnal; its spirited, syncopated groove mirrors the urgency and anticipatory excitement of a looming, late-night assignation.
Final track “Little Lights” sums up The Phosphorescent Blues, a single-take recording that imagines countless smart phones held in the air as a symbol of hope and possibility, a 21st century twist on “This Little Light of Mine.” At its climax, the band is actually joined by a digital choir of its fans. The band had tried overdubbing their own voices, but that sounded contrived. Then one night, while driving home in L.A., Witcher had a brainstorm: If they didn’t have the resources to assemble a choir in the studio, why not reach out directly to fans, via Twitter and their website, to add their voices? Eldridge reveals, “We received over a thousand submissions. It wasn’t about people singing well or badly; we just wanted everyone in there.”
"Little Lights" becomes a fitting, and genuinely uplifting, conclusion to The Phosphorescent Blues, as Punch Brothers address the questions they've posed about technology by conjuring up, in the course of the song, a very real virtual community. They used all the digital tools they had on hand, but it ultimately came together in a more familiar way, via words and music and voices.