1000 Albums Project

ALBUM 447

The Phosphorescent Blues, by Punch Brothers
Suggested by Peet Denny

I was four, I think, when I killed the fairies.

It’s actually one of my earliest memories, and as such it’s rather ephemeral. Lying in a short bed, drifting off to sleep, relishing another visit from my whispering nocturnal friends.

“Can we come and play?” one would ask, every night. Yes, I’d think. Come and play.

“Will it be safe?” she’d timidly enquire, and I’d nod my head.

Eyes closed, breath caught, I’d lie completely still. I’d hear them chatter and dash around my feet, under the blankets, up to my belly, past my ears, through my hair and away.

Then, one night, I broke bad.

“Can we come and play?” came the call. Yes, I thought. Come and play.

“Will it be safe?”

A nod.

Eyes closed, waiting, breathless, mischief in my mind. A touch on the toes, the crook of my foot, delicate, gossamer, around my knees, up to my hips. Climbing higher, to my chest, around my arms,  playful, soothing, safe.

Then, cacophony.

Without warning, I thrashed my limbs, hands grasping the blanket, back arching, legs kicking, teeth bared. I slapped the sheets, punched my thighs, invaded every inch of my bedspace with an intruder’s force. I heard the wails, felt the pain, didn’t stop.

I was spent in seconds, but it was done. I’d betrayed them.

“Goodbye,” said the voice, full of regret and despair. “We can’t play any more.”

I’ve not heard the fairies since.

Punch Brothers are an American five-piece, playing delicate tunes on a selection of the fringe stringed instruments like mandolin and banjo. Their songs are a subtle blend of progressive bluegrass, classical and folk, pleasantly paired with a high vocal and falsetto that frames emotion well. Their fourth album, The Phosphorescent Blues, begins with a ten-minute track called Familiarity, which presents as intensely gentle and fragile, almost a soap bubble, despite building to a palpable height. It’s a twittering bird, a Faberge porcelain, something that will crumble should you hold it with anything less that total reverence. It’s an anxious feeling, listening to music that sounds ready to shatter at any moment.

To my mind, there are three threads to this album. One sees songs like Familiarity, like the closer Little Lights and its precursor Between 1st and A, presenting a song like a spider’s silk, a candy floss softness that recoils from direct light. Another sees more classical sounding pieces, like Prelude (Scriabin) and Passepied (Debussy), adding depth and texture to the aerated beauty, while never fully shedding that eggshell veneer. The third is more robust, with more strident bluegrass rootsy songs like I Blew It Off and my standout Magnet, but even these are a translucent muslin, a one-ply single sheet. Bluegrass has a swagger, usually, while this sound tiptoes through the snow.

I’m not an idiot. Fairies aren’t real. I was four, and imaginative. Even so, I felt a genuine sense of loss when the fairies died, a mix of pain and shame that crept up in unguarded moments well into adulthood. This album, a pleasant 6/10 with a dandelion heart, takes me back to that feeling of oafish regret, and has me on edge, wondering if I’ll plunge my thumbs through the music’s soft meringue shell and never hear its whispers again.

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