The Punch Brothers: “Punch”

The Punch Brothers take their name from a story by Mark Twain, an author who grew increasingly caustic and cynical in his humor as his career progressed. The same, it seems, can be said of Chris Thile, the bluegrass prodigy who formerly served as the unofficial leader of the late Nickel Creek– a band that was generally known for their fun, zippy musical workouts and their goofball cover selections, like Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” but took a turn toward noticeably darker waters with their final album, Why Should the Fire Die?

Thile’s emergence as ringleader of the Punch Brothers continues the trend, not only in terms of its brooding atmosphere and somber mood, but also in terms of its thematics; if some of that last Nickel Creek album was inspired by the breakdown of his marriage and the subsequent loss of his childhood faith, Punch is an album entirely focused on divorce, betrayal, and disillusionment. Indeed, the album’s centerpiece is a four-part suite called “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” essentially a dino-sized middle finger to his ex-wife. Though the suite it bookended by four much shorter songs, the four-part epic is obviously the album’s centerpiece, and those shorter songs are almost completely eclipsed. That means that this is, for all intents and purposes, a concept album, and it’s as insular and indulgent as a concept album can be. Though Thile is joined by a group of world-class bluegrass musicians, the emphasis here isn’t on the sprightly solos and riffs of Nickel Creek’s stuff, nor on snappy, concise songwriting. Punch is as much inspired by classical music as it is bluegrass, and the arrangements are intricate enough that really appreciating the album requires an awful lot of work and intense concentration. This, combined with Thile’s increasingly bitter and paranoid songwriting, means that it’s a tough egg to crack, interesting as a concept but tiresome to listen to. Nickel Creek fans will doubtless appreciate the musicianship on display, but only the most dedicated will be able to unearth the album’s rewards– and even they aren’t likely to enjoy it very much.

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