I’m not sure that American Beauty is my favorite movie, but I’m pretty sure it has soaked deeper into my brain than any other. Certain images and episodes come to mind all the time — the fight over the beer that was about to spill on the couch, the “I want to look good naked” line, the phrase “Lawrence Welk shit” among them. The idea that comes up most, however, is the plastic bag thing — the scene in which we watch two characters watch a video of a plastic bag blowing in the wind. As he takes in his videographic handiwork, the creepy but ultimately awesome next door neighbor kid delivers the movie’s best line:
“Sometimes, there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I just can’t take it, and my heart is going to cave in.”
Later, Kevin Spacey tells us from beyond the grave that in situations like that, he’s learned (omniscience is quite handy) to let the beauty flow through him “like rain,” instead of trying to bottle it up. They’re talking about the sublime, which I wrote about just a few weeks ago, but they’re also talking about the part of human nature that makes us want to contain things. To corral them. To own them. Last Tuesday, I ran headfirst into this impulse thanks to the Punch Brothers show at the National.
I went with my friend Tex, and he and I agreed that the show probably contained more notes than anything we’d ever seen there. I’m talking a simple count — if you could somehow keep track of every note played, every pluck of a string, every sweep of a violin bow, the Punch Brothers would have far and away the highest total. Between Thile’s masterful mandolin and the similarly dextrous playing of the other four members of the ensemble, it was an absolute pelting of notes. Notes, notes, notes. And more notes.
It was notes. I mean NUTS — it was nuts.
You could argue that’s just how bluegrass rolls. That because bluegrass ensembles often contain mandolins and banjos, two instruments with almost no sustain at all, and because the guitar is typically acoustic (way less sustain than its electric cousin), you need to keep plucking to keep things moving. But the classical elements Thile and the gang pull in and the group’s astounding proficiency push things even further, resulting in, you guessed it, more notes. Notes, notes, notes. It’s a lot to take in, and that’s what I found most fascinating.
After each song, I shook my head (the letters SMH ran through my head each time, which tells me I need to spend less time with my phone), saying to myself “It’s just too good.” Every single song. In fact, after the first song, “Another New World,” it occurred to me that I could have left right then feeling like I’d gotten my money’s worth. There’s so much to a Punch Brothers song — so many ideas, diversions and idiosyncrasies — that each one seems like an event. A whole thing. It’s amazing. It’s also problematic. Not problematic in the sense that they should change how or what they perform, but I do think it’s important to approach the onslaught with the right mindset.
It reminds me of an article I read one time about how we perceive large numbers. I’m having trouble finding it, but the upshot was that the higher numbers get, the harder it is for us to truly understand what the amount signifies. It’s easy to make sense of the difference between 10 and 100 — you could, for example, picture a $10 bill sitting on a table next to 10 $10 bills — but the difference between a billion and a trillion? They’re both so huge it’s hard to really wrap your brain around it, and the more zeroes you tack onto the end, the worse it gets.
Something similar happens at a Punch Brothers show. The first song is totally amazing, because just a few minutes before, you were hearing disorganized crowd noise and bass-heavy house music, and then all of a sudden you’re hearing these ridiculously talented musicians make these ridiculously gorgeous and tightly arranged noises. There’s a built-in juxtaposition there. It makes sense. But then you get to the second song — more ridiculous musicianship, more ridiculous gorgeousness — and the third — more again — and something starts to get lost. You grow numb to how difficult and well-constructed what they’re doing is, yet the notes keep on coming.
I could feel this happening, and I turned to Tex and said that I’d give my right arm for a recording of the show. I wanted to be able to go back and appreciate each song individually, because there was so much to dig into. I wanted to contain it. To own it. But here’s where Kevin Spacey comes in. You can’t hold all of that music in your brain. You just can’t. And the harder you try, the more you try to tape with your phone, the more you try to remember a particularly clever mandolin phrase or violin solo, the less you’ll hear in the next moment. You have to let it flow through you like rain, or you’ll drown in it.
I’ve tried to be better about this lately by not taking many photos, and I haven’t taken video of a song in a ages, but I couldn’t resist when the band started the encore with “The Auld Triangle.” Chris Thile recorded the a cappella traditional for the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack with Marcus Mumford and Justin Timberlake manning two of the five vocal parts (Punch Brothers Chris Eldridge [guitar] and Gabe Witcher [violin] contributed the other two), and I listened to it over and over when NPR did a First Listen. I didn’t get the first verse, and this girl’s cell phone rings at a particularly climactic moment, but I can’t be too mad because A. She high-fived Tex and me not long before this video was taken, and B. Her phone rang just as the lyrics “jingle jangle” were being sung, and who doesn’t enjoy a little gratuitous synchronicity?