[1 April 2014]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
In 2007, Why Should the Fire Die? became much more than a rhetorical question for the fans of Nickel Creek. Two years after the release of that album, the group declared it would go on an indefinite hiatus, leaving many aghast. After all, though the trio of Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile had been playing and writing music together for eighteen years by that point, during that time they only released three major studio LPs, Nickel Creek (2000), This Side (2002), and Why Should the Fire Die? (2005). (The group’s twee first two records, Little Cowpoke and Here to There, never garnered much widespread attention.)
With WSTFD?, the trio expanded on the incredible gains made on This Side, all the while adding a darkness previously unheard in its music. Cuts like “When in Rome” and “Helena” displayed a cynicism that can only come with age and lost love, the latter of which was a bitter reality for Thile, who had just undergone a divorce from his first wife at the time of that album’s release. Still, there was a preciousness underlying the album’s dark streak that keeps things quintessentially Nickel Creek; they weren’t going so far as to become the bluegrass version of angsty punks. Whereas Thile would ruminate esoterically on his divorce in the Punch Brothers’ 40-minute bluegrass/classical fusion opus “The Blind Leaving the Blind”, the still-young trio sings the lament of the struggling skeptic in the endearing “Doubting Thomas”.
The hiatus announcement in 2006, then, seemed like climbing to the top of Mt. Everest but stopping just before the Hilary Step. Few bluegrass acts have caught the public attention in the way Nickel Creek has, a fact attributable in large part to its youth and its willingness to draw influences from multiple genres. (It’s not just any bluegrass band that would think to cover Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger”.) However, not long after the trio’s departing each member began to show a new range of creative colors. Thile, who during Nickel Creek’s glory days still managed to put out fine solo releases like Deceiver and How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, formed the Punch Brothers, who are responsible for a brand of bluegrass that pushes the genre even further than Nickel Creek did. He would also go on to win a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 2012.
Sara played fiddle on tours with Jackson Browne and The Decemberists, all the while releasing two solo records. Sean founded Fiction Family with Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman, putting out two records under that name. The ability of these musicians to meld and mold genres together is something they have proven is not limited to the confines of Nickel Creek. A sense of daring has remained constant—even if the fire that started to flicker dimly in 2007 was a cause of disappointment.
Nine years after WSTFD?, however, the band has gotten back together, and fortunately it doesn’t sound like the old rhythms were at all difficult to get back into. The announcement of A Dotted Line came with the release of lead single “Destination”, which would have made just as much sense as a farewell song back when the trio began its hiatus. “I’m moving on to where I belong,” the trio harmonizes. Likewise, opener “Rest of My Life” sounds like a rewinding back to the times of the hiatus, with Thile singing, “The battle is over/Here we are now / In a dry sea of Solo cups,” then adding: “What a great way to start / The first day of the rest of my life.” These three musicians have made their maturation evident, both in the progression Nickel Creek took in the mid-‘00’s and with their subsequent projects, but the lyrical matter in the beginning of A Dotted Line reads like the words of people who are only now coming to terms with adulthood. But it is not Thile and the Watkins siblings who are growing up. Rather, Nickel Creek, as a project is doing so.
Calling a for a break after only three albums may seem like a premature move to some, but it’s critical to remember that this group has been together since the late ‘80s; by the time WSTFD? dropped, they had been going at it for almost two decades. The musical ventures the three took after the hiatus reveals that they weren’t giving up on musical maturation; they were doing it in newer, freer territory, without having to deal with the expectations associated with what Nickel Creek had become. Nine years, much like tomorrow, is such a long time, but it’s exactly what was necessary for Nickel Creek to become the project it has become with A Dotted Line. The teenage musicians responsible for “A Lighthouse’s Tale” and “When You Come Back Down” have grown up into songwriters with a knowledge of when to let the music breathe. Patience is one of the defining qualities of this LP.
This is evident in the relative dearth of fretboard-burning barnstormers on A Dotted Line. The trio has already proven to the world its technical finesse with instrumentals like “Ode to a Butterfly”, “Smoothie Song”, and “Scotch & Chocolate”. With this new LP the emphasis is less on impressing the shredding-addicted crowd and more on crafting supremely tuneful songs. A Dotted Line‘s two instrumentals, “Elsie” and “Elephant in the Corn”, are impressive numbers—the latter being the most intricately plotted instrumental the band has written yet—but they don’t play like pieces trying to black out the bars of the staff. Thile in particular has reined himself in far more than on past LPs; his signature mandolin virtuosity is still obvious, but on tracks like the charming apocalypse gospel of “21st of May” (which more likely than not references Harold Camping’s famously inaccurate prediction) his soloing is subdued and tasteful rather than flashy for flashiness’ sake. A Dotted Line’s fastest paced piece, a straightforward cover of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft”, is primarily so not because of any noodling solos, but rather the inclusion of—gasp—drums, a tactic this trio has only used once before (“Helena”). On the whole A Dotted Line is the most pastoral of any of this group’s albums thus far, but “Hayloft” shows their playful edge just as their cover of “Spit on a Stranger” did back in 2002. Growing up doesn’t mean losing a sense of fun.
A Dotted Line also stands out as the most egalitarian of the trio’s works yet. Thile has undoubtedly had the best luck with his post-hiatus career—to use his own words, “there ain’t too many folks who can play too many notes on the mandolin”—but from the sound of this record no one dominated the recording sessions more than another. Thile takes up lead vocals on four tracks, with the Watkinses heading up the rest. Sean contributes the two tenderest cuts here, the melancholy “Christmas Eve” and the humorous yet sympathetic “21st of May”. In the early years of the band, Thile spoke of an inherent competitiveness to the their method of playing; here, however, the environment is one of conviviality rather than one-upsmanship. On the gorgeous “Love of Mine” and the soulful cover of Sam Phillips’ “Where is Love Now?” the band sounds like it’s taking its time, reveling in each note. The vocal harmonies are, as ever, immaculate, but A Dotted Line reveals an even richer rapport amongst the three, a kind of rapport one might predict can only come with age.
For that reason, it becomes obvious that nine years wasn’t too long a wait given that the result was this, an album that confirms these musicians have an interplay that should be the envy of anyone in their class—which is, of course, but a few. A Dotted Line is a work of supreme songcraft; one might call it a “return to form”, but from the sound of it, the form was never gone in the first place.