Credit: Clement Pascal / New York Times
by Jonathan Keefe Music Rooted & Restless

Chris Thile | Laysongs

July 8, 2021

Somehow Chris Thile’s debut solo record, Laysongs finds the musician in delicate, ruminative form.

Given that he’s been a professional musician for more than half of his life, it’s something of a surprise to realize that Laysongs is Chris Thile’s official solo debut. First gaining recognition as part of the pop-bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, then founding progressive stringband Punch Brothers, working alongside collaborators including Yo-Yo Ma, and taking over as host of A Prairie Home Companion, Thile has rarely taken a break in the last two decades. Though he has served as the lynchpin in both Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, there’s always been a collaboration amongst the members of those bands, obscuring what Thile has or hasn’t brought to the table in terms of his firsthand experiences. Laysongs, then, is striking for its openness and transparency: The album consists of just Thile’s voice and mandolin, and the occasional handclap or footstomp for percussion. That there’s nowhere for Thile to hide is fully in service to the album’s greater focus, which finds the MacArthur Foundation-certified genius attempting to reconcile the tensions he perceives between his prodigious talents, longings for both justice and community, and his evangelical upbringing.

It’s an album that is truly agnostic in the sense that Thile lays bare his uncertainties and questions about matters of faith, and it’s perfectly aligned to the growing “exvangelical” movement that has gained considerable cultural traction over the last few years. The very premise of “God is Alive Magic is Afoot” would certainly have many fundamentalists clutching their pearls at Thile’s playful conflation of the holy with the profane. In contrast, “Ecclesiastes 2:24” (“There is nothing better for a man, than that… he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor,” for the heathens reading this) is more literally aligned with scripture, in that it finds Thile taking a joyful approach to his work, picking a nimble, intricate melody from his mandolin. As is always the case with Thile’s recordings, there is no faulting his technical gifts: Few artists in popular music have such a forward-thinking and sophisticated capacity of composition and how musical structures relate directly to tone and theme. His singing voice rarely draws much commentary, but he’s always been a skilled vocalist, and the versatility of his performances here — his falsetto on “Laysong,” in particular, is stunning— capture the full range of the album’s challenging emotional terrain. Closing the set with a cover of Hazel Dickens’ “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me,” Thile ends this evocative song cycle by suggesting that, even in the absence of conclusive answers, there is still something valuable in shared experiences and a true sense of community: That may not be gospel, but it’s still a message worth preaching.

Published as part of Album Roundup — June 2021 | Part 1.