Early on Fiction Family’s new album Fiction Family Reunion, Sean Watkins sings, “Sometimes guilt just ain’t enough.” It’s a reflective thought touching on relationships and faith, and it points toward a search for a more complex understanding. That search for an increased complexity could also apply to the group’s new work. Led by Watkins, from Nickel Creek, and Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman, the group has substantially built on its 2009 self-titled debut, not by adding complications to their sound, but by adding complexity to both the music and their artistic personalities.
The 2009 album let the Christian rocker blend with the bluegrass artist in a way that merged the two styles into a comfortable sort of folk-pop, as suitable for coffeehouses as anywhere. Fiction Family Reunion expands the sound from the start, with “Avalon” matching Baroque style with ‘60s psych-pop (I want to hear this riff performed on clavichord). “Fool’s Gold” touches on ‘70s folk-rock while bringing in Sara Watkins and John Mark Painter for a distinctive yet classic sound. The group also does a better job varying tempo and style, from the temperate Band-inspired “Up Against the Wall” to a bouncy country number like “Just Rob Me” to the Tin Pan Alley of “Reality Calls”. The artistic burst builds a multi-faceted work without sounding scattershot in approach.
Equally important, Foreman and Watkins show more of their personalities on this album, and the humor on the disc greatly aids the endeavor. Foreman’s “Just Rob Me” marks the high point along this line, turning the cliched metaphor of stealing a heart into a comic romp. Foreman plays on the idea of the heartbreaking woman by creating a character who’s a bad thief (even holding a gun the wrong way), yet his narrator goes along with her robbery, encouraging her to rob him. Rather than a standard “bad woman” song, it’s a cute number about the man’s complicity in the experience, adding a sense of joy to the cat-and-mouse of romance until “my outlaw’s been giving me in-laws”. It’s worth noting that “Give Me Back My Girl”, a catchy AOR number, works less well, sticking to a standard trope in which the girl is simply a possession to be owned or lost.
“Damaged” points to the fear and vulnerability that we can feel in a new relationship, announcing the feeling with the opening line “I am damaged and I don’t want you to know” (a statement which varies throughout the track). The frailty here stands in wonderful contrast to something like “Just Rob Me” and Watkins’s rare guitar solo makes a strong statement initially defying, then conceding, to the emotion of the song.
It’s likely that “God Badge” will get some attention, maybe particularly from Switchfoot fans. The song functions as a plea to remember the challenge to love over the pride of being right. Foreman sings, “Put your God badge down and love someone …. There is no us and them / There’s only folks that you do or don’t understand … Lay your gavel down.” The simple track builds slowly across its almost six-minute run time. The song issues an order that’s as compassionate as it is compelling, and it’s especially effective coming in the middle of an album so full of thoughtfulness, desire, humor, and uncertainty. More than a song, it’s a person making an appeal.
By creating a more complex album, Fiction Family has allowed its enthusiasm varied enough expression that the energy runs high throughout the ten tracks. It’s a strong step for the group, and certainly moves them out of the side-project category. Here’s hoping we get this sort of reunion more than once every five years.