Chris Thile's solo output has been an eclectic affair, his group work (with Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers) and side projects (with the likes of Mike Marshall, Bela Fleck, YoYo Ma and Brad Mehldau) equally so.
On "Thanks For Listening", more than on any other project he has engaged in, we have Thile wearing his influences on his sleeve, and the result is his most consistent solo effort, and one that – for the most part, but not necessarily enough - side-steps his propensity of excessive technical showmanship. We can forgive that to an extent – he is an exceptionally talented musician – but such forgiveness only extends so far; sooner or later, the goods have to be produced. Does he do it? Well, sometimes …
As a mandolinist, Thile is utterly astonishing. His technical prowess is almost entirely unmatched. You have to remember, a mandolin is a stringed instrument with more limitations than either a guitar or a violin (the two instruments it has most in common with, in real terms), and it is the mandolinist's approach to these limitations that will define him/her, and his/her success or failure. Thile has a veritable arsenal of technical chops to deal with that decreased range (both guitar and violin have more usable notes available to them), decreased sustain, and limitations on bending notes (a mandolin has double courses; where a guitar is a simple matter of six strings tuned E-B-G-D-A-E, a mandolin has 8 strings tuned in pairs: EE-AA-DD-GG. This means that bending the strings like Dave Gilmour is pretty much off the table of options, unless discord is your thing. Finger vibrato is also decreased, as that requires the missing sustain).
Thile's solution, in the main, is to create cascading
mandolin lines, melodic and harmonic use of rapidfire arpeggios (using a
mixture of basic and intermediate level techniques such as straight flatpicking
and crosspicking, with slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs thrown in here and
there, plus the occasional sprinkling of harmonics both natural and pinched).
In other production scenarios, his lines might be played by a synth with an
arpeggiator. But that wouldn't work quite so well (or it would be nothing short
of disastrous). The delicate plinking pluck of the mandolin is a sound that
inhabits its own universe. Apart from the precision with which Thile delivers
these lines, it's the fact that he also sings while playing them. There are a
good many guitarists out there who can just about manage strumming chords in
simple down-up-down-up patterns while singing, but what Thile does is
ludicrously high-level stuff. There's good reason why few covers of his songs
find their way onto YouTube – the majority of us mere mortals can barely play
the damn things without singing. It's hard not to feel, sometimes, that he's taking the piss. However, the musicality of his work suggests that nothing
could be further from the truth. He is a genuine artist, using the skills,
education and instincts he has in equal measure to make his art his own. So, it's pretty, and it's art, but is it good?
The songs on "Thanks For Listening" are taken from Thile's work for "A Prairie Home Companion", one of the most revered and beloved radio shows in the US. Thile took over from Garrison Keillor, and the timing proved to be interesting: at that point, the USA was on the brink of electing either its first female president, or its first septic one. Sadly, it chose the latter (although Hilary Clinton wasn't a great choice, either, given her monied ascent at the expense of Bernie Sanders, probably the most popular politician in the country, but let's not digress. Definitely. Let's not …)
The first thing that strikes a listener familiar with Thile's previous work is the consistency of tone and style. His previous group outing with Punch Brothers (which I reviewed here) lacked a definite identity (to summarise, there was a kind of tension between the original compositions, the will to appease fans of the "yee-haw" factor, and classical adaptation). What "Thanks For Listening" delivers is something that could be identifiable as "Chris Thile".
Musically, we can hear Thile's classical training and personal tastes in that canon (lots of Bach, in particular) coming to the fore, alongside his long affair with Radiohead. Obviously, feeling freer than in his group projects or collaborative projects – each having a collection or specific set of aims and objectives – he here welcomes unlikely instrumentation, stumbling chord changes that would not be amiss on some 70s prog rock albums, second vocalists, and a broad dismissal of anything that could be described as "bluegrass" or even "new grass" (yeah, there are little hints and echoes, but nothing very foregrounded). Where this will sit with his fans, I can't say (I personally don't know many to have a discussion about the matter, and I'm not going looking into some forum somewhere to find out, either).
Perhaps of greatest significance is the sound processing employed. The track "Falsetto" is the most dramatic example of this. Mandolins are filtered, modulated , equalised, compressed, washed in reverbs and delays, and lord alone knows what else. The song itself feels like a pop song that has wandered into an unfamiliar city and is attempting to fit in.
The album opener, "I Made This For You" begins with a Pink Floyd-like "Shine On" drone, before taking a deceptive turn into a baroque singer-songwriter avenue that it merrily skips down, sporting a deceptive simplicity where the details are as complex as Mandelbrot sets. Layers of sound and vocal build and ebb, the stage moves between distant and universal to the up-close and personal. This is a perfect musical dramaturgy to match the lyrical content. The song itself is as 2017 as any song I've heard, one that questions what commitment to a cause means, especially when it's not always clear what that cause is, or what your commitment to it actually means. Media, both print and "social" are the focus here, in relation to real world events, the truth that opinions, theories and "fake news" orbit:
As we leave the front pages in bed
With the war raging on in our heads
I could write a swath of humanity off ’cause of
something that I just read
But I don’t wanna fight fire with fire
And I don’t wanna preach to the choir
Giving just as much hell as I get
To people I’d probably like if I met
So whether these days leave you laughing or crying
If you’re doing your best to be kind
This land is as much yours as mine
And as God is my witness
I made this for you
"Feedback Loop" is perhaps the most "Radiohead"-y track, also sporting hints of Pink Floyd's "Meddle". Of course, the song structure is fuguelike, and quickly shifts into passage that could be the Beach Boys covering Leon Redbone, or Steely Dan covering Bert Jansch; yet the sound is Thile's own. The additional vocals by Gaby Moreno (whose CV thus far includes stage-sharing with the likes of Tracy Chapman, Ani DiFranco, Bono, Damien Rice and Van Dyke Parks) add both textural and emotional elements that complement the song, another look at social media and the dehumanizing effect of communicating without eye contact and out of real time:
I’m gonna rip you and yours a new one
With my invincible indignation and cunning wit
Soon as you follow me
Won’t you follow me?
Why won’t you follow me
You stupid liar?
I’m such a nice guy
Feedback Loop I play you to soothe my
Feedback Loop I play you to soothe my
For anyone out of the
Feedback Loop I play you to soothe my...
"Elephant in the Room" brings on the whimsy, almost Randy Newman-like, in examining family gatherings where an abundance of the Devil's electric soup and divisive issues on people's minds can be a lethal cocktail. What the titular "elephant" actually is is never specified, although in the course of the song a large number of options are available, and teeter on the brink of a boiling row:
Been kind of a warm November...
God, you and the climate change again, why you
gotta be all doom and gloom?
Woo boy, at least no one’s mentioned the giant
elephant in the room
However, where Randy Newman can deadpan this kind of thing, Thile is simply having too much fun, with the consequence that this is the track on the album that will be the first to become cloying, and elicit liberal use of the skip-track button.
"Douglas Fir", and as the printed title says "featuring Aoife O'Donovan", shifts gears into the most "Bluegrass"-influenced track on the album. The mandolin lines here are layered, but never overly dense, while somewhat sci-fi synth-like sound swell and rise in the background. Lyrically, the song is a simple plea for common sense when one considers children, regardless of their background.
For unto us is born this day
In the City of David
A savior which is Christ the Lord
Whatever we may think of that
From Syria to Manhattan
Let every child be adored
It's a Christmas song, of course, but one that
doesn't wear red and white and green, or go leaping through cotton wool snow.
In the catalogue of his songs, this one will stand up for a longer time than
some others. Possibly the best track on the album, too.
"Thank You, New York", a simple celebration of New Year at the end of 2016, again features Gaby Moreno, and processed acoustic instruments. However, here things take a distinctly different musical turn, with a full drum kit driving passages, and Thile's mandolin skittering across more notes at times than you thought human fingers could successfully navigate. It's a good song, although unlikely to creep into anyone else's set list thanks to that full-on mandolin assault that almost no-one could emulate (or perhaps even want to … although I really wish I could!)
"Stanley Ann" is another gear shift, offering a piano-based track, one that happens to be a sober backward glance on the Obama era (literally – it's sung from the point of view of Obama's leaving the White House). It's nice. That's all that can be said, really. It's a song without landmarks in its soundscape, meandering as it does. Yeah … Nice. But forgettable.
"Modern Friendship" (featuring Sarah Jarosz) brings Thile's Bach influences/affections to the fore in his playing/composing. It's another New Year song, not likely to replace "Auld Lang Syne" (which is name-checked in this one), but an enjoyable enough listen. Again, it lacks a full quota of musical landmarks, although is structurally much more interesting than its predecessor, "Stanley Ann".
The aforementioned "Falsetto" again brings Radiohead influence to bear on proceedings, but moves into more pop-oriented territory after the opening. Lyrically it's another look at social media and the troubles of the world, referencing alt-right imagery (and its accompanying fuzzy logic histrionics in social media, from the virtual offices of Breitbart scribes to the short thumbs of Twitter's most notable twit), but in this case it seems to be a reflection on the fact that musicians are widely considered – particularly by those of a rightward leaning – to have no business commenting on political matters. Yes. The political amateur dictates that no political amateur but themselves has a right to a voice. Ahem …
"Balboa" harks back to Thile's "Not All Who Wander Are Lost" in musical terms, although possesses some greater musical complexity, and is a piece of lyrical wishery and escapism, but once again lacks clear landmarks. It comes, it goes.
The title track, "Thanks For Listening" is structurally more defined than many of the songs in this selection, but lacks any truly identifying features apart from the husky viola playing of Nadia Sirota, and its crescendo to its coda. Lyrically, it's something of a plea for togetherness and tolerance, although it lacks teeth, or rather, strong enough imagery, to drive forward its point.
Thile's biggest obstacle to creating a fully consistent album is his technical capability. He would do well to take a step back and compare this album with Sierra Hull's most recent offering, "Weighted Mind". Hull is also a super-talented mandolinist, and a great vocalist, too. However, her approach to self-accompaniment is much more restrained than Thile's – not because she can't, but only because she doesn't. Thile simply tries too hard, which is a shame, because we live in a world where Bob Dylan can be a Nobel Laureate for literature and a ball of garbage disposal pulp encased in lard holding a cell phone can be President of the United States. In that world, the sheer amount of effort Thile puts into his work is simply confusing. Obviously, I'm being flippant here, but the real problem is that the work seems confusing for Thile himself. Often there are moments where everything becomes obscured by notes, the harmonies make you do a double-take (was that out of tune or did he do it on purpose?) and the architecture of the songs can contain a tent appended to a high tower without always giving a decent context or pretext for doing so.
Personally, I enjoy listening to anything Thile offers, but his will to be artful, to earn and re-earn whatever garlands, awards, or grants he has already been presented with, forces his song writing strengths into the back seat. He CAN turn a decent lyric, but often will opt to take a long-winded arrhythmical line over a shorter condensed one. He can overdo the whimsy (yes, he's enjoying it, but there's a time for restraint, and there's also a time to kill your darlings). He chooses some great images, but isn't always sure what they mean, it seems, or what they could be contextualised to become an allegory or symbol for.
The biggest favour Thile could do for himself as a songwriter is to begin by pretending he doesn't know anything about what he's doing. To pretend that he only knows open-string chords on his mandolin. To pretend that all song lyrics must rhyme and have a strict rhythm. To pretend that songs follow verse-chorus structures. To begin from a place of emptiness.
Even when he "strips things back" (I hate that phrase, but at this point, everyone knows what it means), and it's just his voice and a single mandolin (as on "Balboa" here, some minor overdubs trickery on the vocals aside), he plays as though he's trying to impress some fleet-fingered god of darkness who will remove his talent, or all that he loves, or even his life, if an endless stream of demi-quavers is not poured forth with stolid conviction.
I want nothing more than to like everything he does, as I admire him as a player, a singer and a human being. But Lord! he makes that so difficult, as he hides behind a smokescreen of technicality. This is a marked improvement on "Deceiver" (for me, his last solo album – "How To Grow A Woman From The Ground" was really a proto-Punch Brothers album to a large extent. The "Bach: Sonatas and Partitas Vol.1" album was a Bach album, really; I cherish it, though - it is a truly beautiful thing); "Deceiver" was nigh on unlistenable at times. But it was one of those albums an artist like Thile needed to get out of his system. Sadly, some residue remains.
Eventually, he WILL make a truly great-from-end-to-end album (again, I'm excluding his Bach Sonatas and Partitas album, which is perfect in intent and execution). I'm hoping for sooner, rather than later, for the album where he keeps his mandolin pyrotechnics in the solos (for the most part) and the songs are capable of being learned by the beginner-to-intermediate players of this world – after all, most of the greatest songs ever written fall into this category. In short, less art and intellect, more simple honesty and feeling.
And, being me, I live in hope of hearing him make interesting use of an electric mandolin … One day. One day.