Above: Photo by Devin Pedde from Sean Watkins.com
This has been a busy year for guitarist Sean Watkins. His bluegrass trio Nickel Creek ended their seven-year hiatus in April with the release of the excellent A Dotted Line and followed that up with an extensive summer tour. In the midst of that tour comes the release of Watkins’ first solo album in eight years.
All I Do is Lie blends folk, rock, and country elements quite seamlessly over a brisk ten songs. The gentle, catchy opener “Since the Day I Was Born” puts the focus on Watkins’ soulful singing, while the accompaniment builds gradually from simple strummed acoustic guitar chords into a fuller ensemble. Quietly, a clean electric guitar and bass guitar sneak in during the chorus and are eventually joined by piano and drums around the song’s halfway point.
The song’s refrain, “I’ve known you since the day that I was born / The pathway to your doorstep from mine is well worn” is strong enough to inspire singing along by the end of the first listen of the track. In contrast, the album’s second song, “All I Do is Lie”, is based around a speedy, complex guitar riff, with basic lyrics about a man trying desperately to convince himself he’s over an old ex. The song’s final minute, which features swirling fiddle from sister and Nickel Creek bandmate Sara Watkins and a piled up, round-like repetition of the words “All I do”, ends cathartically when Sean finally concludes the phrase “…is lie.”
Watkins’ penchant for repetition gets him into a bit of trouble on the song “Made for TV Movie”, which likens a brief, doomed relationship to the telefilm of the title. He notes, “We’re a made for tv movie / We were written in haste / We were never gonna join the race,” which is at least a halfway clever metaphor. But the song’s easygoing country vibe is not where Watkins’ songwriting strengths seem to lie. And he leans so heavily on that chorus that “halfway clever” turns into “cloying” by the end of the song’s too-long five and a half minute running time.
Elsewhere, Watkins gets away from relationship lyrics with the quiet folk song “The God You Serve.” The religious subject matter is similar to Watkins’ bitingly sarcastic “21st of May” over on the new Nickel Creek album, but his approach here is essentially inverted. “21st of May” was a joyful gospel bluegrass tune, while “The God You Serve” features Watkins directly confronting a Christian straw man in a tone alternately angry and sad. The refrain, “You say he’s fair / And wants everybody there / But heaven won’t be home for us all”, followed closely by “If you say that there / Are souls he won’t repair / The God you serve dropped the ball,” pretty much sums up the song. It’s a simplistic point of view, but it works well with the song’s simple folk arrangement.
The balance of All I Do is Lie is quite good. Some tracks, like the sparse, minor key “Wave as We Run” would fit in exceedingly well with Nickel Creek’s oeuvre. Others, like the electrified country blues of “Keep Your Promises”, cast Watkins’ songwriting in a pleasingly different context. The catchier songs, like the upbeat folk of “Don’t Say You Love Me” and the acoustic rock of “What Wanting Means”, highlight his melodic strengths. In an interesting choice, the record goes out on what is perhaps its most subdued note, the instrumental “Meredith,” which is essentially a Watkins’ duet that gently blossoms into a multi-tracked Watkins’ quartet before quickly fading away in just over two and a half minutes.
Watkins’ last solo album was in ’06, which makes the gap between his solo records almost as long as the gap between Nickel Creek albums. In that same time frame, Sara has put out two solo records of her own while Chris Thile has been pretty high profile with his progressive bluegrass group Punch Brothers. It’s true Sean has had his own project with Fiction Family, but he’s often felt like the member of Nickel Creek who gets the shortest shrift (although it should be noted he makes quite a strong impression on A Dotted Line).
Thile is essentially the group’s de facto frontman, while Sara’s fiddle playing and beautiful singing voice are hard to ignore. All I Do is Lie serves as a reminder that Sean is a talented musician in his own right. It’s good to hear him expand on his own material in different styles and arrangements than what Nickel Creek’s very specific lineup allows.