More than a year ago I chatted with Chris Thile about the Punch Brothers’ second album, specifically asking him how much of the material he had penned himself—a natural question, given his remarkable growth as a songwriter over the course of three Nickel Creek and five solo albums since his debut as a 12-year-old mandolin prodigy in 1994. This musical apprenticeship had yielded bountiful fruit on the Brothers’ acclaimed 2008 Punch debut, notably with a breathtaking, classically-styled four-part suite, “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” that took progressive bluegrass to places even Bela Fleck and the Flecktones hadn’t so far ventured. Yet Thile revealed that none of the new songs would bear his solo writing credit. “This is a true collaboration,” he said enthusiastically, “and I’m loving it.”
Despite the collective songwriting, it’s hard not to hear Thile still mining the detritus of his failed marriage that has, aesthetically speaking, been the gift that keeps on giving for the writer. Rather than being a dramatic departure from Punch, Antifogmatic (named after a 19th century hangover cure) is a solid step forward in the same vein, but with greater confidence on all fronts. Instrumentally, the tunes bristle with subtle, nuanced instrumental dialogue among Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Noam Pikelny (banjo), with new Brother Paul Kowert admirably holding down the bottom on bass. This interplay allows for dramatic changes of texture within the framework of a single song, in for example the way the ensemble falls away from a rousing pitch in “Welcome Home” into a ruminative, stark, rather ominous mood fashioned by subdued mandolin and fiddle musings bolstered by Kowert’s low, grumbling bass, before lashing out again in a hard-charging bluegrass fury.
Based on the songs’ lyrical arc, it appears the antifogmatic these fellows need is a necessary remedy for alcohol- and love- induced hangovers alike. Sometimes, as on the sprightly, fiddle-fired countrified celebration “Rye Whiskey,” the inevitable ill effects of mixing women and drink are treated more as desirable outcomes than cause for regret. Over the course of six minutes “Me and Us” ebbs and rises in a tale of romantic misadventure, the softer passages allowing for a kind of instrumental Greek chorus discoursing in various combinations of instruments, transforming the number into a rootsy art song in the process. On the other hand, “Next To The Trash” is a traditional, and lovely, country waltz, albeit one disguising a corrosive accounting of a couple’s dysfunctional relationship before breaking into Beatles-like extra-textual commentary, with the singers mocking themselves in a boozy singalong measure. Nice touch, too, in appropriating a bit of the beautiful melody of Al Martino’s 1965 hit “Spanish Eyes” in the languid, exotic five-minute kissoff, “Alex,” a model of the tender farewell-and-good-riddance parting shot.
Producer Jon Brion fashions a clean, robust ensemble sound (warmer and airier on the LP), weaving the acoustic instruments around Thile’s insistent but sensitive vocals in the center channel, then opening up the soundscape when everyone gets going at once. Thus the Punch Brothers’ second chapter, arguably better than the first, and in no way treading water. For Thile and company, mapping new frontiers is becoming a way of life.