Thile knows our time is precious and finite.
Chris Thile’s voice has not changed. Somehow, in the nearly two decades since he burst onto the bluegrass scene with Nickel Creek, that quivering tenor is still as tender and shimmering as it was on day one. Thile is still a springy 36, but it’s impressive to hear how clear that captivating voice still is. What has changed is his lyrical voice. On his own, he has become more expressive, more dexterous and more daring with his trusty mandolin at his side.
Thanks for Listening mostly drops frenetic, blazing bluegrass soloing for a series of evocative short stories, helmed by Thile’s quick wit and deft arranger’s ear. It’s probably the new gig hosting A Prairie Home Companion that’s given Thile a hunger for a rotating cast of wacky characters accented by crafty music. After all, these songs were originally composed for that program.
Unsurprisingly then, this certainly falls on the “pop” side of folk or bluegrass. It’s a pristinely-produced album, propped up by tasteful piano licks and string segments. Hell, “Falsetto” is about 9/10ths of the way to a chart topper. Its chorus is the catchiest on the album, a cheeky ode to how Donald Trump would react to a guy like Thile showing up unannounced. Thile has to add in a pinch of oddness. The verses fall in and out of major key, lurking their way through minor moments with Thile’s voice sliding from comforting to creepy.
“Elephant in the Room” is another jaunty tune, and wouldn’t be out of place in a mid-century musical. Thile smirks to his partner “Thank God for fermentation/ Fermentation for the wine/ Thank wine for conversation with the relatives-in-law of mine.” He somehow survives the not-so-polite Holiday night, thank God for wine. “Modern Friendship” also tips its cap to the soothing powers of booze. It finds old buddies drifting away, only to have a late-night drink bring them back together. Much like “Falsetto,” Thile merges major and minor for a perplexing feeling as he tells tales of nostalgia mixed with current regret, albeit with hope at the bottom of the night’s first shot.
As the album artwork implies, Thanks for Listening is an album of extremes, though not in the way you might expect. The album can be split into two sonic halves, one delivering a joyous warmth, the other a meditative coolness. “Douglas Fir” and “Balboa,” the two most mandolin-dominated songs, certainly fit in the former category and hold one of Thile’s most straightforward, but powerful sentiments. “I want to meet the world,” he coos on “Balboa” as his instrument goes off into a wanderlust interlude. “Thank You, New York,” a love letter to the Big Apple’s resilience, is Thile’s largest track in scope. Multi-tracked voices cry out, proclaiming NYC’s beauty while slippery keyboards ripple behind them. And the chorus is an instant sing-along, easily the album’s most welcoming moment.
The other side might be the more fascinating. “Feedback Loop,” a comment on social media bubbles, is a haunting, ghostly thing. Thile’s strings shudder eerily as he sings in a glassy-eyed mewl. “I’m gonna rip your and yours a new one/ With my invincible indignation/ So won’t you follow me,” he sings, reflecting the obliviousness of screaming YouTube commenters, proclaiming themselves protectors of the world. “Stanley Ann” is the most graceful of the bunch, a glacial song similar to Gord Downie’s final testament “The North.” Here, Thile imagines a devastating, one-way conversation between Barack Obama and his deceased mother Stanley Ann Dunham as he leaves the White House. It never leans into gross voyeurism, thanks to Thile’s delicate touch and humanizing lyrics. “You should see the kids/ They remind us of you,” he sings, a gentle reminder of the humanity that becomes expendable for so many leaders.
The title track closes, forming an elegant balance between the album’s two faces. Thile follows a nameless traveler, stuck in an airport and sighing through an uncomfortable conversation with a stranger. But Thile soon blows up the scope to make it into a full bear hug from him to the listener. “Your ears make me feel like we’re less divided than we are,” he sings.
Thanks for Listening is about conversations of all sorts. Ghosts, Presidents and musicians, all gabbing on and on because they’re desperate to find fellow wandering souls who will hear their stories. But Thile knows our time is precious and finite. He doesn’t want to waste it. But Thile’s voice…well, you can waste plenty of time with him.