Nickel Creek
Photo: Josh Goleman / Sacks & Co.

Nickel Creek Musically Stretch on First Record in Nine Years

Celebrants is the lengthiest record Nickel Creek have ever made. It’s bursting with ideas and is a bit of a sprawl but an exciting set of songs.

Nickel Creek
Thirty Tigers
24 March 2023

It’s been nearly a decade since Nickel Creek put out an album. 2014’s A Dotted Line came out nine years after the band’s previous album, 2005’s Why Should the Fire Die? Considering that the trio formed their group as preteens in 1989, it’s understandable that they needed that break in the mid-2000s. Now, among all the other musical projects Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins have going on, it’s a pleasure to hear the three of them occasionally get back together and make music.

Nickel Creek may have started as a traditional bluegrass act, but they’ve dabbled in all sorts of folk and rock styles over the years. With ten tight, compact songs, A Dotted Line felt like the most successful reunion album. They were back together and distilled their sounds into the best possible version of a Nickel Creek record. It’s hard to improve on that. Consciously or not, they went in a different direction this time out.

Celebrants announces that change immediately, opening with the title track. Lyrically, the song is indeed a celebration, as Thile sings, “My God, it’s good to see you / Right here in the flesh.” It’s about the joy of getting back together and making and experiencing live music in person. We’ve had many records over the past two years addressing the isolation and other issues involved with quarantine. Nickel Creek is ready to talk about finally seeing other people again.

Aside from the lyrical topic, though, it’s a musical departure. It’s still mandolin, acoustic guitar, and fiddle (plus string bass), and the three members harmonize beautifully. However, it drifts through many different sections in three minutes and 24 seconds. It goes from bright major key moments right into muted minor key passages. The harmonies slide all over the place, into unusual and familiar intervals. Sparse, almost creepy sections give way to warm, intimate places. It all hangs together with a couple of musical motifs that recur throughout the song, giving it a familiar melodic center despite all the changes. What “Celebrants” feels most like is Nickel Creek performing a track from Thile’s other band, the more experimental progressive bluegrass outfit Punch Brothers. It’s a fascinating combination.

The Sean Watkins-fronted “Strangers” is a guitar-focused minor key folk track that takes on the same lyrical topic from a different angle. It leaves space in the song’s middle for extended mandolin and fiddle solos while Sean and bassist Mike Elizondo hold down the rhythm. Sean, regardless of his lyrics, always exudes warmth in his vocals. It’s a nice contrast to the complexity of “Celebrants”.

That warmth is also a huge asset in the high-energy rocker “Stone’s Throw”. Sean spins a narrative about going for drinks with an old female friend and staying much longer than intended. Refreshingly, this encounter doesn’t turn into an affair. Instead, it’s an examination of the anxiety his significant other experiences. Distracted, Sean doesn’t respond to her phone calls or texts, and she spirals into dark thoughts. She collapses in relief when he finally arrives home and relates all of this back to him. “Stone’s Throw” is incredibly catchy, with hooky acoustic guitar chords, tight, engaging harmonies, and a terrific bridge.

Sara takes the lead on “Where the Long Line Leads”, a country stomper of the type Old Crow Medicine Show create in their sleep. The style is unusual for Nickel Creek, though; they prove quite capable here. Sara has primarily sung lead vocals on delicate ballads over the years (with the excellent A Dotted Line single, “Destination”, being a notable exception), and it’s a pleasure to hear her belt it out for a change. She’s also out front on “From the Beach”, which, while quiet, is not a delicate ballad. It’s slow and sparsely arranged, with Elizondo’s thundering bass notes ringing out while the other three pluck and bow through the track. Like on “Celebrants”, the vocal harmonies slide and shift unexpectedly, making it fascinating but not exactly catchy.

Thile has the most songs as the band’s lead vocalist. “The Meadow” is interesting. It starts like a familiar, jaunty Nickel Creek track, but Thile slides his vocals around to unexpected notes. When the harmonies come in, they follow his lead, meshing unusually. Tempo-wise, the song stays bouncy and upbeat, but melodically, it’s all over the place. “Holding Pattern” finds Thile taking on a delicate ballad himself. The guitar and mandolin echo each other in an ear-grabbing pattern while Thile sings softly about feeling unstable and unsteady. There’s more in here about the sense of dislocation a traveling musician who suddenly can’t travel feels. It turns out Celebrants isn’t completely devoid of COVID songs.

Thile’s highlight is the melodic “To the Airport” about the experience of being at the airport and highly sympathetic to the folks who work there. It opens with, “Here’s a song / For the good folks who / We pay to look for bombs / In each other’s boots.” Little countermelodies on the fiddle and guitar come in as Thile continues, adding hooks along the way. In the back half, the final verse involves a single mom with small children running into an upset business person on the plane. “I heard her tell him off, like / Who the hell are you / To assess this job / That you could never do / Just put your headphones on, and / Then away we flew.” “To the Airport” is a triumph of arranging and melody.

It wouldn’t be a Nickel Creek record without bluegrass instrumentals, and there are two here. “Going Out…” is fast and upbeat, with a melodic theme that goes through the mandolin and fiddle before dissolving in a mid-song digression. It returns in the song’s final minute, with the guitar and bass joining in on the theme. “…Despite the Weather” arrives eight tracks later and opens slowly, with a simple fiddle theme played over sustained strumming in the guitar and mandolin while a bowed bass joins them. A tense guitar line, thick bass notes, and atmospheric fiddle accents enter soon after. The track shifts around much more than its more explicitly bluegrass-styled predecessor. Interestingly, Nickel Creek bring it together in the final 90 seconds, allowing Sara’s fiddle to reprise the opening melody over a much warmer rhythmic bed.

At 18 tracks and just a hair under an hour long, Celebrants is the lengthiest album Nickel Creek have ever made. It’s bursting with ideas and is, unsurprisingly, a bit of sprawl. It’s fun to hear the group exploring new musical territory, stretching their sound in ways they haven’t before. The long break between records has made for an exciting set of songs.

RATING 8 / 10