The Punch Brothers’ Phosphorescent Blues is an airhead in hipster clothing: although it might appear unusual and rebellious on the outside, spend any time in its company and you’ll soon realize it has little to say.
The album is a work full of pretentious cross-referencing, with the work of two great classical composers adapted for some insultingly insipid covers:Passepied (Debussy) and Prelude (Scriabin). Even the brilliant Magritte work adopted for the cover artwork is a foolhardy attempt to appear arty.
Beginning the album with the ten minute plus Familiarity is an ambitious move, but you need talent to back up ambition, and there is nothing in the song to justify its running time. Even before a full minute of the tune has passed, Familiarity has worn out its welcome. Although Punch Brothers are ostensibly a bluegrass band, the song plays like a watered down version of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android, complete with layered vocals and a dismal attempt at tonal mashup. It’s a hollow, ultimately worthless trip, and a foot in a dangerously dull direction.
Julep feels as though it was made for an artsy car advertisement – it’s all surface level style – and the repeated phrase “I died happy in my sleep” must have sounded much better on paper than it does sung aloud.
The worst of the bad bunch is I Blew It Off, a song that boasts more laughably dumb lyrical content, and Magnet is a foolhardy attempt to mix bluegrass riffs and pop rock choruses with a set of annoyingly insistent vocals, complete with phrases so poorly written and melodramatic they could have been lifted directly from the diary of a love sick 13 year old.
My Oh My is more traditionally bluegrass, but its thigh slapping high clappin’ tone is halted in its tracks by a few terribly misjudged changes in tone, as the mood dips so suddenly that it sours any entertainment value that the song might have had. Boll Weevil is the album’s best (read: least awful) track, as it keeps things admirably and enjoyably simple. There’s not much to it, but thank God for that: it’s one of the few songs on the album that doesn’t reek of a band trying far too hard.
Forgotten and Between 1st and A come with significant flaws, but together they comprise another of the album’s few highpoints – now and then a genuinely interesting turn of phrase or riff manages to sneak through the dull tunes. Sadly, Little Lights closes out the album as it began – with the annoying tone of that bore at a party who introduces themselves as a ‘poet.’
I’ve always argued that any music that takes risks is worth something. I still stand by that: although The Phosphorescent Blues may appear to be playing with genre and tone in an interesting way, there are no risks taken here. This is a path that has been walked by a great many more interesting and successful artists. It’s a trip to a place you already know, with a pretentious group of musicians as your guide.