Album Review: Punch Brothers, All Ashore (2018)

I found this review sitting in a miscellany folder on my computer. I really like this album so I am publishing it here even though it’s about three years late.

Punch Brothers: All Ashore, Nonesuch Records 2018

The years between Punch Brothers’ 2015 release, The Phosphorescent Blues and their latest outing, 2018’s All Ashore, were busy years for America and for the individual members of the band. As Donald Trump journeyed from reality television personality/frequent Fox News guest to the Oval Office (and figures like Sean Spicer, James Comey and Robert Mueller became household names), the band wound down its touring schedule to pursue other projects. Guitarist Chris Eldridge put out his third collaboration with jazz guitarist Julian Lage, and banjo player Noam Pikelny released his solo effort “Universal Favorite.” Both albums were produced by fiddle player Gabe Witcher. Meanwhile, upright bass player Paul Kowert began touring and recording with his new instrumental bluegrass band, Hawktail. However, no member was busier than bandleader Chris Thile: the mandolinist took over hosting duties of the long time NPR variety show A Prairie Home Companion (subsequently renamed Live From Here), recorded a new solo album of songs from the show, and released an album of covers and instrumentals with pianist Brad Melhdau.

All Ashore album cover

Amidst all this creative output, the band was clearly paying close attention to the state of our Union. Released in July of 2018, the album is a monument to the current moment, a record that pursues timelessness by firmly rooting itself in the here and now. By turns tender and irreverent in word and music, All Ashore considers themes of isolation and division, love and transcendence in a fracturing age.

Lyrically, the album explores the deeply personal amidst a backdrop of social and political upheaval. Album opener and title song “All Ashore” seems to locate each member of an American family, emotionally as well as physically, in the space of their home: “She hears the clock tick, the wolf who loiters at the door/Daddy asleep in the bed he made the night before.” Track three, “Just Look At This Mess,” features lyrics about lies and honesty contrasted by a soaring, ethereal melody; whether interpreted as a song about lovers in a relationship or the interplay between politicians and the media, the combination is beautiful in its stark juxtaposition. “Angel of Doubt” is a precisely considered meditation on modern middle class anxiety. And the rollicking track “Jumbo,” with lyrics like “I guess he got off to a hell of a start/With his grandpa’s money and his daddy’s heart/But you oughta know privileged is a pretty hard thing to be,” reads as a consideration of disaffected white working class Trump voters or, alternatively, as an ode to the most exhausting bloviator at your most recent Thanksgiving dinner. 

The astute, emotional and socially resonant lyrics create a sense of the band perceiving and recognizing its listeners. Punch Brothers sees you, the songs seem to say, we recognize this moment that all of us are in together. It is a tricky balance, in 2018, for a band with bluegrass instrumentation to strike a tone of honest, compassionate resistance in their music. Bluegrass, of course, is an idiom that sprang from Appalachia before a time when the region was synonymous with joblessness and the opioid crisis. The music continues to code culturally in loose association with a certain type of backward-looking whiteness. And yet, even in the heady and progressive compositions on Ahoy, the genre is still first and foremost among the array of influences that form the sound of the band. 

Punch Brothers has never been satisfied to color inside the lines, and this newest album sees the band reach a new musical peak in composition and performance. Rather than moving through different combinations of bluegrass, classical, pop and rock as on past records, the band reaches for something subtler and more complex, crafting a unified sound out of these varied musical elements to such an extent that the record seems to exist in a genre all its own. 

The strings—bowed, plucked and picked—build layered textures beneath Thile’s plaintive voice, while the instrumental sections simmer and throb and build and collapse in ways that feel both effortless and intentional. The acoustic instrumentation keeps the music grounded, allowing the songs to journey sonically outward while keeping the listener close at hand. And, despite what must have been a high level of attention to detail and precise musicianship, the songs still feel loose and free; what might have been suffocating in the hands of less capable musicians is instead given an endless amount of space to breathe. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this, Punch Brothers’ fifth album, is the first that they produced themselves. 

It is an incredible experience to hear musicians at the height of their powers attempt to produce art that is equal to the current moment–and largely succeed. At times raw and vulnerable, at others rambunctious and winking, All Ashore is an album that sees the Punch Brothers charting new waters. Listen to it with the lights off and imagine brighter times. 

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