Mandolinist and singer-songwriter Chris Thile writes psalms for those who struggle to believe — or belong
Long before the arrival of Covid-19, faith leaders were wringing their hands over another rapidly spreading phenomenon: the nones. Not to be confused with women religious, the term refers to the growing demographic of those who, when taking surveys, report their religion as “none.” In July, the Public Religion Research Institute found that nearly a quarter of Americans identify as nones, and that a large portion of this group (36 percent) are young adults.
Statistics like these are a mixed blessing. At best, they inspire conversations about reaching the unchurched. At worst, they provoke apocalyptic hand-wringing over the coming collapse of organized religion, for which our pagan youth are to blame. In both cases, statistics alone miss the complexity and nuance of individual experience. Anyone seeking to understand the nones, old and young alike, might begin by listening to actual people.
Mandolinist Chris Thile’s religious arc can be traced through his decades of songwriting.
And by listening, perhaps, to “Laysongs,” the new solo album by the singer-songwriter Chris Thile. Raised as a fundamentalist evangelical but now a self-described agnostic, Thile first sang about his faith in his teens, when he fronted the Grammy Award-winning Americana trio Nickel Creek.
Today, at 40, Thile is best known for two things: being the world’s pre-eminent mandolinist (a feat that has won him platinum records, collaborations with master musicians like Yo-Yo Ma and a MacArthur “genius” grant) and leading the Punch Brothers, a bluegrass ensemble with a penchant for nautical balladry, sharp political satire and dizzying virtuosity. But in “Laysongs,” Thile lays theatrics and sea captains aside and sings simply and honestly about his struggle to believe.
Thile’s religious arc can be traced through his decades of songwriting. Nickel Creek’s early offerings contained both explicit references to Christian faith (“The Hand Song”) and the seeds of doubt. In “Doubting Thomas,” 19-year-old Thile expresses both a desire “to be used to help others find truth” and fear that he’ll “find proof” that his faith “is a lie.” Young Thile chides himself for these worries. “O me of little faith,” he sings in a voice as earnest as it is youthful. Over a decade later, Thile’s voice sounds as youthful as ever, but his Punch Brothers lyrics reveal a man who has left faith behind. In “Familiarity” Thile laments to his lover that he “doesn’t know where we’ll go/ To worship more than what we know.” Though now churchless, Thile still feels a pull to belong to something larger than himself. But where to find it?
This feeling of rootlessness is part of what led Thile to create “Laysongs.” Recorded in a decommissioned church during the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, “Laysongs” is Thile’s attempt to recreate the feeling of oneness that comes from gathering together, even as the pandemic kept everyone apart. Thile also imagined “Laysongs” as a collection of hymns for the churchless.
"Laysongs" spans the entire emotional range captured by the prophet David: doubt, despair and even ecstatic outpourings of praise.
Mercifully, “Laysongs” sounds less like a Unitarian Universalist songbook and more like the Psalms. In a deft nine tracks, it spans the entire emotional range captured by the prophet David: doubt, despair and even ecstatic outpourings of praise. For people of faith, “Laysongs” also provides an opportunity to glimpse inside the religious longings of those outside the church.
Bookended by the hymnlike “Laysong” and “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me” (a Hazel Dickens cover), “Laysongs” extols the value of community. Gathering together brings comfort, catharsis and shared wisdom to the afflicted.
And yet Thile laments the disorientation of the post-religious landscape, where “our souls are untethered/ And nothing’s sacred or profane,” a state that has left everyone “out of breath” (“Laysong”). Humans are “a species at war/ With itself since the day it was born” (“Dionysus”). Death is ever-present and greatly feared (“Salt (in the Wounds) of the Earth”), and the narrator of “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me” yearns for an afterlife, “where there’s no more sad parting.”
For all his doubts, Thile has no problem acknowledging the presence of evil. On “Laysong,” he urges the congregation to “drown out the enemy,” crying wearily that he has “had enough of him for the week.” In “Salt (in the Wounds) of the Earth,” Thile’s three-part rumination on C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, modern-day demons seek to demolish their charges’ faith. As is always the case with evil, there is nothing novel about the demons’ tactics; their chief argument against religion is the hypocrisy of all believers. The faithful weaponize religion as “a torch for the saved to bear/ Over all the sinners there” and “[rub] salt in the wounds of the earth/ In the name of a savior,” seeking to boost their own egos rather than reach the lost. By the song cycle’s end, the demons celebrate a triumph: They have rendered the faith of the tempted “soul-crushingly weak.” Thile’s formidable musical chops are on display in “Salt (in the Wounds).” As the demons reach a frenetic crescendo, so does he. His voice rasps and his playing becomes strident and urgent. There is a desperation to his tremolos and plucks; he plays as if he believes that if he could just strum hard and fast enough, he would silence his own demons once and for all. There is much more at stake here than singing a song.
But “Laysongs” also expresses Thile’s ache to encounter the divine. In the plaintive and tender “Dionysus,” he begs to be led “to some holy place,” offering in return worship that is at once playful and sincere (“I’ll sing you what I see, Lord/…/ I’ll dance you what I hear”). The song’s title and second verse, with their references to imbibing, invite an alternate reading of “Dionysus” as a paean to hedonism. (As any Punch Brothers fan knows, Thile is fond of penning odes to alcohol.) But the vulnerability of “Dionysus” makes me think that it is more than a drinking song. Thile’s exuberance evokes someone who recognizes (rightly) that he has been given many gifts and wants to give back in kind—though he may not know to whom.
Chris Thile plays (and sings) like he has found the news the world has always waited for.
Taken as a whole, “Laysongs” poses urgent questions about matters of faith, the kinds of questions all of us encounter at one point or another: Can one acknowledge the reality of evil and death without succumbing to despair? Can hypocrisy exist in the presence of truth? How can we congregate without villainizing those outside the fold? And how can anyone see all these tensions and still dare to believe?
These questions, if not answered, are given a surprising response in the album’s ecstatic zenith, “God Is Alive Magic Is Afoot.” An effervescent reimagining of a 1969 folk song by Buffy Sainte-Marie, “God Is Alive” displays Thile’s virtuosity at its finest. He matches the energy of “Salt (in the Wounds)” and then flies past it. He plays (and sings) like he has found the news the world has always waited for.
“God Is Alive” is the closest “Laysongs” comes to a declaration of faith. Its lyrics were penned by the late Jewish singer and poet Leonard Cohen, who was fond of referring to Christ in his work. In mystical, twisting language, Cohen tells of foolish unbelievers (“Though mountains danced before them/ They said that God was dead”) and the resiliency of faith (“Though his death was published/ Round and round the world/ The heart did not believe”), of God’s purposes persisting in spite of the hypocrisy of those who “locked their coffers.” Most surprising of all, Cohen writes—and Thile sings—of the reality of the Resurrection: “Though his shrouds were hoisted/ The naked God did live.”
This summer, at the Punch Brothers’ second concert since the lockdown, I heard Chris Thile sing “God Is Alive” to a rapt outdoor audience in Indianapolis. There, as in “Laysongs,” it was startling to hear him declare with fervor that “the naked God did live.” Thile himself may not believe these words, but they are still true. And he still sang them, and they resonated through the amphitheater and into the minds of all who heard.
In the Gospel of Luke, Christ says that if the faithful should fall silent, the rocks would cry out to God in praise. Eyeing the nones’ rising numbers, those prone to apocalyptic imaginings would tell you that the rocks are warming up their voices. Don’t believe them. A day may come when all the faithful will have faded to dust. A day may come when the rocks will begin their solemn song. But if “Laysongs” is any indication, that day is not upon us—not yet.