Last year, mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile suddenly began delivering stronger songs on the theme of messing up in love, for his band's latest CD Why Should Fire Die? He apparently had life motivation. The songs had that inevitably short-lived, if exhilarating, young man's first-brush "how could that happen to me" feel about them. This adventurous new solo collection careens towards some answers, much along the a lines of adult country music's response: "Because these things happen -- and I'm going to show you what they are."
Thile takes the listener on a rollercoaster tour of relations to women -- wanting them, living with them, losing, longing, finding one again, even, in a dazed moment, as the title song has it, trying to grow your own. The accompanying sonic stretches are smart, and engaging.
An unpredictable turn on the White Stripes' "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground", of all things, is attacked via hard traditional bluegrass sounds. Obviously aware of the dangerous "Frodo Sings Emo" twee-climbing side of some of his highest and airiest pop vocal performances, Thile toys with that tone in "Stay Away", the set's most angry and strung out, anything-but-mellow "devil woman" sort of tune.
Halfway toward the more reconciled numbers of the song-cycle's end, he moves -- in another true surprise -- to an aggressive, full-throated take on Jimmie Rodgers' "Brakeman's Blues" that transforms his higher vocal end to a blue yodel shout. Then the sound gets even bluesier, on the old-timey "If The Sea Was Whiskey", approached strikingly in black gospel-inflected vaudeville quartet style.
By the time Thile gets to a fully-realized pop take on the Strokes' "Heart In A Cage", a track strong enough to be a hit single (if only in places that broadcast the "F" word), the man's growing musical finesse, range and daring can't be missed. This one's a real step forward.