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Album Review: Thanks For Listening

Chris Thile
Thanks For Listening
Nonesuch Records

Thile has released a solo album amid a slew of changes in his life; his first solo album of original material in over ten years. That’s not to say he hasn’t been busy. His lauded collaborative album Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau was released in January 2017. On top of that, Thile’s 2016 run as new host of Garrison Keillor’s radio show A Prairie Home Companion turned into a 2018 run as first host of Chris Thile’s Live From Here after Keillor, a close friend of Thile’s, was cut from Minnesota Public Radio after allegations of “inappropriate behaviour.” So it goes. All these things considered, Thanks For Listening simply makes sense.

Musically, this is an album that draws from all aspects of Thile’s career. Some songs have straightforward song structure (“Elephant In The Room”) while some dip and dodge through winding country roads (“Balboa”). Some songs have stripped-back instrumentation (“Stanley Ann”) while some feature a drum kit, guest vocalists, and ambient string backing (“Feedback Loop”). There is folk, there is jazz, there is pop.

Lyrically, this is the most optimistic we’ve heard Thile for a while. Previous Thile-driven albums often seemed hung up on conflict (see Punch Brothers’ debut album), but Listening is smooth, mature, and non-confrontational in its approach to current events. “I could write a swath of humanity off ’cause of something that I just read,” croons Thile on the opening track, “but I don’t want to fight fire with fire.” There are a few bitter lines here and there, but overall Thile seems content to praise family, Christmas, interactions with strangers, and municipal exploration. Chasms are spoken of only as things to coax hope out of. The most egregious exception to the uplifting tone comes in the form of “Falsetto,” a commentary on how contemporary society approaches entertainers in the political landscape. It’s satirical, it’s referential, and it’s unflinching.

The name of the album itself encourages discussion. Thile says as much on “Modern Friendship”: “Listener, may your ears open wider than they’ve ever been, to bitter enemies and friends alike.” This is an album that in its very quiet and humble way demands conversation. “Thank You New York” may be the centrepiece and musical standout, but the title track, placed delicately at the end of the album, is the one that sticks with me: a four-minute crescendo of a story about, among other things, someone who listens.

Thanks is a record that could only have been released in 2017, or in 1956, or in 1692. It carries us through themes that are as timeless as they are impending. It asks not for accolades but for greater understanding between people, be they relatives at a tense family dinner, internet strangers, or travelers in taxis or a New York airport. The music is honest, the stories are humble, and Chris Thile is, as always, at his best.

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