Politically conscious albums have not exactly been a rarity over the last couple of years. The cries of anger, vitriol, pain and justice from musicians in the midst of this particularly tumultuous political moment have, simultaneously, made the musical landscape more culturally vital, and a much more difficult place for listeners to escape from the chaos of everyday life. With that in mind, the achievement of contemporary acoustic music pioneers, Punch Brothers, on their new album, is a truly astonishing one. All Ashore is a nine-song suite that reflects on the issues that plague society, but also provides a sense of calm, escapism and togetherness. Lyrically, this is Punch Brothers’ most cohesive album to date. It has clearly been approached with a much greater sense of purpose than previously, and musically, it really feels like the quintet has reached something of an apex – albeit an apex that will probably be surpassed with their next project.
Banjo player, Noam Pikelny, has described this album as a “momentous reuniting” of the band, and that’s certainly true. In the years since their last release, The Phosphorescent Blues (2015), every member of the band has been involved in various side projects. Pikelny recorded a solo banjo album, Chris ‘Critter’ Eldridge recorded a guitar duo album with Julian Lage, bassist, Paul Kowert made a record with his new band, Hawktail, and fiddler, Gabe Witcher produced two of those three records along with a number of others. Of course, most prolific of all was mandolinist and frontman, Chris Thile, who recorded albums with Brad Mehldau, Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, as well as a solo album of songs written for his radio show, Live From Here.
The boys have been exploring the musical fringes around their work as Punch Brothers, and have learned a great deal from doing so, which is incredibly apparent in their performances on All Ashore. Thile’s lyrics are more sophisticated than they’ve ever been, to the point where he even pseudo-raps on ‘The Angel of Doubt’ (and perhaps even more surprisingly, pulls it off), and both Pikelny and Eldridge have significantly more substantial melodic roles on this record, which is a welcome change that contributes to All Ashore’s wonderful textural complexity and variety. Another major change from previous records is that the band has, to a large extent, done away with the poppy song structures of The Phosphorescent Blues and Who’s Feeling Young Now?, opting instead for more linear, multiple act structures that better aid the narratives of the lyrics, and are somewhat reminiscent of the band’s first opus, ‘The Blind Leaving the Blind’.
The record opens with the title track – a song about how romantic relationships and close family help us balance out the modern world’s incessant demand that we should be constantly creating and achieving things, never slowing down long enough to appreciate what we have. It’s a song with a pensive feeling to it despite its complex rhythms and pointed banjo countermelodies. This is a quality that sums up the whole vibe of the record; even when the lyrical themes and instrumental wizardry are at their most impassioned and unrestrained, there’s still an overriding sense of calm that runs throughout.
‘Just Look at This Mess’ is a fascinating exercise in juxtaposition, using a frantic mandolin riff to transition between a lush, sustained section, heavy with vocal harmony, and a more rhythmically dense, RnB influenced section, complete with a fiddle countermelody wherein Gabe Witcher employs a strange, ethereal affection in his sound. The aforementioned ‘The Angel of Doubt’ draws from an eclectic pool of influences to musically illustrate the internal conflict caused by self-doubt; the song evokes the biting, spoken-word lyricism of Randy Newman’s ‘My Life Is Good’ and the rhythmic and harmonic intensity of Radiohead’s ‘2+2=5’. Punch Brothers have not kept secret the influence Radiohead has had on their work, and that influence is further apparent on the album’s lead single, ‘It’s All Part of the Plan’. This is clear through the song’s rhythmic homage to Radiohead’s ‘15 Step’, and through politically tinged lyrics that are very clearly directed at a certain orange individual.
Other political moments on the album include the humorous ‘Jumbo’, which jauntily takes a number of swipes at the aforementioned orange individual’s eldest son, and ‘Just Look at This Mess’ which tackles society’s increasingly subjective conception of the truth.
One thing that is consistent across All Ashore is the band’s ability to spin their incredible instrumental prowess into memorable, yet challenging musical ideas, and nowhere is that clearer than on the record’s two instrumental tracks. ‘Jungle Bird’ is especially memorable alternating between a more contemporary, syncopated banjo melody and the most bluegrass-esque idea you’ll hear on the whole record – a sparkling, utterly joyous fiddle melody. ‘Three Dots and a Dash’ (the obligatory alcohol themed track) is a more meticulously composed piece, and the most traditionally structured on the record. Its catchy main melody leads into a rip-roaring fiddle solo from Witcher and gives way to a sweeter, mandolin and guitar led interlude, before Paul Kowert’s thunderous bass playing cuts through and leads the way to a whirlwind finale.
The album’s conclusion ushers in a sobering, contemplative end to the suite. Following directly on from the more raucous satire of ‘It’s All Part of the Plan’, ‘Like It’s Going Out of Style’ is one of the sweetest love songs in the band’s discography. The central mandolin riff is cyclic and utterly intoxicating, and made even more so by deep, muted guitar chords, tremolo banjo and ethereal, sweeping fiddle. It’s also Thile’s most heartfelt vocal performance on the record, wherein he reaches the highest limits of his falsetto. The way in which the five instruments and the five voices interact and complement one another on this track brings the final moments of All Ashore back to the idea of togetherness – reminding us that in the midst of troubling times, the best antidotes to all this toxicity are the relationships we have with those around us.