Album review: Punch Brothers knock out acoustic music with ‘Who’s Feeling Young Now?’
“Who’s Feeling Young Now?” will prove to be one of the most respected, lauded, challenging and influential works of the year. But that doesn’t mean you’ll like it.
This is a band that I admire immensely, and there is no doubt that their talent is simply staggering. As one reviewer noted, their work is “inexplicable,” and he meant that as a compliment: It’s not bluegrass, though the members here come, in a way, from that world. It’s not stringband music, though the strings are there and they refer to themselves as a band. And what they do is so remarkably different from the surrounding landscape that approaching their work might be similar to seeing cubism for the first time. You’re left wondering: Is it good? Do I like it? Of course what the Punch Brothers have that the first cubists didn’t is that, no matter what you think of what they’re doing, their authority as artists is simply impossible to overlook. They really are that good.
Perhaps more than the earlier Punch Brothers releases, this album shows how interested the band is in taking their instruments into pop/rock territory, though bringing something new with them rather than just moving into the established forms. But, by the same token, it’s easy to wonder if their audience is really interested in going there with them. To some extent, I’m a member of their audience. A fan of Nickel Creek, I caught every show of theirs I could. I remember going to Merlefest a few years ago and trying to find all the sets where Gabe Witcher was featured, as his playing was stunning. He had a mohawk then, and while he was clearly looking to color outside the lines, he could be just as brilliant sitting in with players who kept him closer to the tradition.
I also remember seeing him take a turn on piano that, itself, was brilliant. In the background, stranded and seated behind a grand, his playing upstaged everyone else, including the vocalist. That’s not an easy feat when everyone else on stage has the benefit of a much greater interface with the audience simply by virtue of being able to move around a bit.
In any case, the Punch Brothers are players with a pedigree looking to chart new territory, and it’s an understatement to say that they’re succeeding at it. They will get lots of pop writers gushing over this release, and that certainly has already happened. Those writers will say things about bluegrass, but that’s simply because there is a banjo player. There is nothing bluegrass about this album.
But what the pop writers also don’t know is that this kind of approach has actually been done, in pretty similar ways, at least once before — specifically, in the music of New Grass Revival. They too were a set of string players, also from the bluegrass world, doing something that at the time was inexplicable. Like the Punch Brothers today, they used the instruments that they were familiar with in order to explore some of the pop landscape.
That was in the ’70s of course, so it didn’t sound the same. But the concept was, I think, identical. Then as now it left people scratching their heads, but it worked. New Grass Revival found an audience, or perhaps built a new one, and the project certainly opened doors for the players involved. It’s hard to imagine the Flecktones finding a footing if Bela Fleck hadn’t first ventured out with New Grass Revival. At the end of the day, I imagine that the Punch Brothers will share a similar biography.
So, yes, this is a band that is capable of so much, and can achieve it without seemingly breaking a sweat. They are also young, brash and challenging. There are great moments on this release, though the ones I’d point to aren’t the ones that others likely will. Every writer who reviews the album will feel compelled to mention that “Kid A” is a Radiohead song, and that’s perhaps to give credibility to the collection to an audience that finds Radiohead eminently credible. Critics will love the edginess and virtuosity of pieces like “Movement and Location.” But for me, “Patchwork Girlfriend” stands out, as does the wonderfully arch “Don’t Get Married Without Me” that risks being read, perhaps intentionally, as a parody of the Beatles later work.
And, yes, the truth is that this release is stellar in more ways that I could probably count. As I say, the critics will gush, as they should. Still, it’s not an album that I’ll listen to often, in part because, after listening to it, I’d need to answer the title question — “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” — with a frank “not me.”
The Punch Brothers are so convincing in what they do, that they seem to be sneering at their roots, the staid traditions of bluegrass and stringband music. They’d say that that isn’t their intention, but that’s how this work feels. They are looking for a new audience, but as part of the old one, it’s easy to feel left behind.