Chris Thile's Laysongs is his first truly solo album: it's just Thile, his voice, and his mandolin, on a set of nine new tracks, combining original songs with three wisely chosen covers that contextualize and banter with his ideas. While Thile's critically lauded interpretations of Bach on mandolin (2013's Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1) also showcased him on his own, that was a kind of duet, a dialogue between Thile and his beloved J.S. Bach. Laysongs, on the other hand, is more of a soliloquy, and it's very much a soul-searching one. Thile confronts, cajoles, and cozies up to his personal - and our shared - angels and demons, an effort made more poignant, dramatic, and universal by the enforced isolation of the pandemic.
At the heart of the album is a three-part piece, "Salt (in the Wounds) of the Earth," that Thile premiered during a fall 2018 composer's residency at Carnegie Hall. It was, he's noted, "the first (and so far only) music I've made specifically to perform alone, which felt like an opportunity to sing some words that it wouldn't necessarily be fair to put in a collaborator's mouth." Little did Thile know he was merely at the start of what would become a solitary adventure, professionally and, lord knows, philosophically.
With Laysongs, Thile had to explore that question, of necessity, completely on his own, which somehow seems fitting: What better way to wrestle with one's thoughts? Metaphorical isolation had become all too real. But Thile, as a songwriter and performer, is an amiable agnostic, even in these trying times. Rather than weighing him down, this period in the epistemological wilderness has lifted him up.
Thile takes a playfully discursive path on this journey toward earthbound salvation. He allows the listener to connect the dots along the way, to figure out how a song about Dionysus, for example, or a virtuosic performance of the fourth movement of Béla Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin, may fit into his plan. "Ecclesiastes 2:24" has no lyrics and may require a brief visit to the Old Testament to see what Thile has up his sleeve. He does offer a clue: "Ecclesiastes 2:24 is one of the Bible verses that resonates most with me. It's good for a person to eat and drink and take satisfaction in their work. And it foreshadows 'Dionysus.'"
Thile had the makings of an album, it turned out, well before he embarked on the actual recording of it. All it took was tying together these various threads from his writing and his research. Helping him put it together was his wife, the accomplished actor Claire Coffee, who'd long been his unofficial sounding board and now serves as his co-producer: "I've leaned on Claire's opinions ever since we met. She has incredible taste and narrative intuition. She was able to help me weave the original and non-original material together into what you're hearing."
Thile realizes - and illustrates in these songs - that the greatest spiritual sustenance comes from communion with others, in breaking bread, sharing wine, and, above all, singing together. The final track on Laysongs, a cover of bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens' "Won't You Come Sing for Me," serves as secular recessional hymn. As he notes, "There is no worship of a deity in that song; it's very much a plea to your close friends, a plea for fellowship."
- Vinyl LP
- Ecclesiastes 2:24
- God Is Alive Magic Is Afoot
- Salt (In The Wounds) Of The Earth, Part 1
- Salt (In The Wounds) Of The Earth, Part 2
- Salt (In The Wounds) Of The Earth, Part 3
- Sonata For Solo Violin, Sz. 117: IV. Presto
- Won't You Come And Sing For Me