The band Punch Brothers was half-jokingly called The Legion of Acoustic Superheroes by newgrass legend John Cowan soon after they formed in 2006.
It made sense at the time — a bluegrass-in-instrumentation-only quintet of top young string virtuosi, led by the ascending king of the acoustic world, Nickel Creek's pre-MacArthur genius Chris Thile.
While Cowan's laudatory nickname hat-tipped their supercharged dexterity, Punch Brothers' new Nonesuch album, "The Phosphorescent Blues," speaks to something far deeper.
"We wanted the music to be as much of an emotional as a cerebral experience," says banjoist Noam Pikelny by phone from Nashville, Tenn.
In hindsight, the band has been moving this way for nine years. From the start, mandolinist Thile and his figurative brothers' concept included Punch Brothers going beyond a standard "newgrass" hallmark of bluegrass instruments applied to non-bluegrass music and, as much as possible, breaking free of all genres.
"It's probably a little bit of a snotty statement," says Thile, also speaking from Nashville, "but I feel like 'musical genre' is what happens when a bunch of good musicians copy the work of a few great ones. Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, those were some truly great bluegrass musicians who together made some new music. As serious musicians, we have to audaciously strive to make new music, regardless of whether that's in the cards for us or not."
Each of the band's releases has displayed a different facet of the band's kaleidoscopic character, from the tightly composed classical abstraction of Thile's 40-minute "The Blind Leaving the Blind" to Radiohead's "Kid A" and their rocking "Rye Whiskey," while maintaining a distinctive sound. "The Phosphorescent Blues" pulls it all together.
"In previous Punch Brothers records," says Thile, "we might hit an aspect of something very hard, and then move on. This time, we were trying to take stock of things that really mean something to all five of us, and try and condense all of those things into a record. But when something works, you have to figure out if you've begun something, or if you have ended it. Somebody will open a door, make a discovery and now they have to figure out what it is. I think we opened some doors for ourselves."
"When we finished the record," says Pikelny, "the unanimous response was, we did it. We stayed true to this band."
"The Phosphorescent Blues" addresses the impact of modern technology on our relationships. Being tightly tethered electronically to one another as never before requires us to redefine what "relationship" means in the first place.
"How does one construct a meaningful social infrastructure these days?" asks Thile. "When connection is so easily forged, can it be thoroughly forged? I decided I should write every single word of this album on my iPhone," he laughs. "Fuel for the fire. I wrote a lot of lyrics on airplanes, coffee shops, wherever it might be. So I'm living it out, buried in my phone with my lyrics."
Punch Brothers fiddler Gabe Witcher had an idea that went a step further. As sung by the band, the album's final, cathartic chorus on "Little Lights" didn't sound right to them. Alternatively, fans were asked to record the lyric and submit their tracks, using things like GarageBand and iPhone voice memos.
And so, thanks to technology, the album's closing moments blur the lines between band and fans beyond anything Bertolt Brecht might have imagined.
Witcher's crowdsourced chorus reflects the ramped-up degree of collaboration that happened this time around. While Thile conceived the album's overarching theme, he sees it "as united a statement as we've ever done, to the point where it would be difficult to parse out what came from where."
That said, the communal approach has done nothing to dilute the project's intensely personal nature. "Forgotten" is the disc's second cut to reference the end of life, and Thile becomes reflective.
"It's about forging a real, true connection with the people that we love." says Thile. "They yank us out of those tailspins, telling us something like (quoting the lyric), 'Hey there, it's all going to be fine; you're not going to die alone; you're not going to be forgotten.' If we can really connect, then even if we do, literally, die alone, in a hospital bed or wherever that might happen, you aren't truly alone. Those people are there because you've made an actual connection that's never off, in a much deeper sense than just having someone hanging out in that little glowing rectangle in your pocket."
Pausing, Thile's voice softens.
"My dad and mom have had such a profound impact on my life. So they may die, but that part of them, that connection that was forged, I feel that they live on through that. That connection isn't lost, because it's been made so deeply."