If you read the news these days, oh boy: with scandals, setbacks, and Twitter rants invading our feeds at dizzying speeds, at best, it can be a lot to take in. At worst, it can invoke the kind of despair that makes you genuinely question the merit of going outside and talking to people. On “All Ashore,” Punch Brothers seem to be feeling a bit overwhelmed, too. The Brooklyn quintet’s self-produced fifth album finds them assessing the current political climate, but they aren’t talking ‘bout a revolution. Instead, they’re reacting more personally, looking to family, relationships, and good old-fashioned optimism as ways to weather the storm.
Social awareness has been a fixture of Punch Brothers’ music — their previous album, 2015’s “The Phosphorescent Blues,” analyzed the struggle of maintaining human connection in the digital age — and “All Ashore” finds them continuing to examine the world with a focused lens. Several of the nine tracks take inspiration from one very specific, if unnamed, subject, and it doesn’t take a news buff to figure out who it probably is. “Just Look at This Mess” discusses a man who “lies like the colors of the rainbow,” while the perky “Jumbo” depicts a dubious character “with a knife and a tan” bent on kicking the “elitist bums” off Capitol Hill. Sound like anyone you know?
“It’s All Part of the Plan” is sung from the perspective of this overarching antagonist, resulting in one of the Brothers’ most unsettling songs yet. “I’m a God more than a man now/I’m a God, I don’t give a damn about my soul,” frontman/mandolinist Chris Thile sings with chilling conviction as the music swells. Later on, he warns, “Give me a law, and I’ll rise above it/Give me hell, and I’ll make a hell of a deal.”
Luckily, it’s not all doom-and-gloom. The group’s bluegrass-meets-classical arrangements are as breathtaking and upbeat as ever, and the intimate production makes you feel like you’re watching a cozy living-room concert in front of a warm fireplace. An effervescent hopefulness shines through songs like the stunning title track and album closer “Like It’s Going Out of Style,” a love ballad that definitely will be making appearances at folkie weddings everywhere. Even on darker tracks like “Look at This Mess,” Thile reminds the listener in a gentle falsetto, “Don’t let him get to you,” referring to the one causing all the chaos.
In these strange times, hope for the future isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to come by — but that might be why “All Ashore” is an album people could use right now. Punch Brothers have crafted a deeply meaningful and downright gorgeous record that takes the world for what it is, but doesn’t use that as an excuse to give up.
Punch Brothers perform at the House of Blues on July 25.Robert Steiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.