After Nickel Creek disbanded in 2007 I use to worry that Chris Thile was just too damn good at the mandolin; that he was doomed to go the way of Tommy Emmanuel or Leo Kottke, forever producing intricate, elegant, and technically astonishing music that no one cares about. Thile is, after all, a wunderkind of the first degree; he debuted his first album at the age of thirteen, recorded with the likes of Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton before he was twenty, won a Grammy at sixteen for participating on a tribute album to Bill Monroe and another at twenty-one for Nickel Creek’s This Side. He’s been known to perform Bach Suites and the ballads of Charlie Parker – yes, on mandolin. He wrote a jazz-inspired classical orchestral piece for bluegrass instruments (I know, I can’t even wrap my head around that one) and recently released The Goat Rodeo Sessions, a bluegrass chamber orchestra of sorts, with Yo-Yo Ma and others. The point is he’s a once-in-a-generation type of musician. But it’s those last couple, the orchestral pieces of the Punch Brothers’ second album and the strange and stagnant Goat Rodeo Sessions that worried me. The pieces exhibited remarkable musicianship and creativity but failed to exhibit one iota of approachability; of the empathy, sentimentality, and bittersweet mood-swings that made Nickel Creek so instantly likeable.
Clearly, Thile should not be condemned for these genre-bending efforts; precocious talent should rightly induce one to push boundaries outward. Let us not forget, however, that complexity cloaked in simplicity is usually more appealing than the esoteric “look how f-ing good I am” route, a fact that Thile himself admitted in a recent interview when he mentioned “trying to work with a bit more humility and awareness,” and cited his “relative incompetence” (which might be going a bit far on the humility scale) along with an effort to make more communicative and approachable music. “Music made for selfish reasons never sounds good. Music made to communicate with your fellow man sounds good.”
Who’s Feeling Young Now?, the newest and finest record from the Punch Brothers, is the culmination of Thile’s shrewd contemplation on the subject. The song structures appear instantly more familiar and comforting, and the remarkable skill and technicality involved is revealed only incrementally with each successive listen. It’s clear from the first track, “Movement and Location,” that this is not your father’s bluegrass. In fact, aside from the instrumental ensemble and the song “Flippen’” it’s not really bluegrass at all. It throbs and hums with a distinctly urban beat, more evocative of the time-lapse shots of Times Square or Manhattan subways than the bucolic pastures of Appalachia or the Midwest. In the hands of the Punch Brothers, the venerable instruments of traditional bluegrass create unexpected and diverse sounds and textures, to the extent that a cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” blends in perfectly with the rest of the album. Who’s Feeling Young Now? is not bluegrass, it’s not pop, it’s not indie rock – it’s something in between that is much more than a simple fusion of different elements.
“Don’t Get Married Without Me,” the album’s final track, provides a perfect encapsulation of Who’s Feeling Young Now? The singular parts, independently unremarkable, aside from the wonderful fiddle work, are subtly assembled to create a potent and unique result. Meanwhile Thile’s voice, somehow increasing in purity as it ages, travels down the path of a relationship gone bad, acknowledging that “we’re just two people who are not in love right now,” and from either aspirations of nobility or deep resentment, telling her to “help yourself to whatever you like with whomever you like” before desperately imploring, “ but don’t get married without me.” It’s an incredibly poignant reflection on the complex sentiments invoked by a break-up, and the difficulties of maintaining a rational stance in any emotionally charged situation. “Don’t Get Married Without Me,” combined with the likes of the bittersweet irony of “Patchwork Girlfriend,” the plaintive howling of “New York City” (co-written with Josh Ritter) and the playfulness of “Flippen,’” is the reason Who’s Feeling Young Now? is so alluring – for the first time since Nickel Creek disbanded, we get to hear the human side of virtuoso Chris Thile.
Listen to “Movement and Location” and “Don’t Get Married Without Me” below.