Sean Watkins has had a prolific couple of years. In addition to Nickel Creek’s long-awaited comeback album A Dotted Line in 2014, Watkins also released a solo record, All I Do Is Lie in the summer of 2014 and the collaborative covers album The Watkins Family Hour in 2015. Plus he toured with all three acts in between. Now he’s back with another solo album, and What to Fear continues his streak of strong releases.
There’s a little bit of everything on What to Fear, but a thread of strong songwriting runs through the album, regardless of whether the track is a bluegrass instrumental or a satirical folk-rock song. The confessional “Last Time for Everything” finds Watkins examining his past behavior over quietly picked guitar. The song’s second verse, where Watkins recounts an incident of drinking and driving that ended with a police officer letting him and his girlfriend go, lands particularly hard because of its specificity. The lush “Everything” finds a guarded Watkins laying out how he never fully commits to a relationship in the verses, before concluding “I would give everything to you” in the chorus. The rock solid rhythm section of Sebastian Steinberg on bass and Barbara Gruska on drums nudges the song along, with subtle flourishes from Steinberg adding a thick harmonic layer on the low end. Watkins himself adds quiet mellotron accompaniment and vocal harmonies to his usual acoustic guitar and singing, giving the song a robust, full-bodied feel.
“Keep Your Promises II” revisits the theme and some of the lyrics of “Keep Your Promises”, from Watkins’ previous solo album. Watkins is still telling a lover not to lie and insisting “Keep your promises / Don’t let them leave your lips.” Musically, however, the songs are completely different. The original was a bluesy country song, while “II” is a stomping acoustic rocker, a big sing along featuring nice organ backing from Benmont Tench. It’s a fun song, but one wonders what happened in the relationship before the song(s) to warrant Watkins’ suspicion involving her promises.
Sean’s sister Sara shows up with her fiddle a couple of times on the record, as she did on the previous one. She’s featured most prominently on “Local Honey”, an enjoyable bluegrass instrumental where she handles most of the melody. Sean and Steinberg fill out the song on guitar and bass, mostly staying out of the way aside from a brief guitar solo about halfway through. “I Am What You Want” is slow and subdued, showing off Sean’s falsetto with atmospheric accompaniment from Sara. It also shows his penchant for creepy lyrical points of view, with lines like, “But I swear you’ll learn to love me / Darling would I lie?” It’s also an unsettling inversion to the already mildly unsettling viewpoint of “Keep Your Promises II”.
But Watkins saves the best for his first and last songs. The album closes with “Back on My Feet”, an upbeat track with a positive lyrical viewpoint. Watkins accompanies himself with simple major key guitar chords and mellotron, while insisting that “I’ll be back up on my feet before too long” in the wake of a breakup. It’s a cathartic finish to an album with a lot of shades of grey. On the front end of the record is the razor sharp, catchy “What to Fear”. Watkins sings from the viewpoint of fear-mongering conservative talk radio hosts openly showing their disdain for their audience. “We’re telling you what to fear / There’s just so much / ‘Cause there’s no one in this dark world you can trust / Except for us,” goes the refrain. It’s a bracing opener, but it’s also the only time Watkins gets so nakedly satirical. Putting it in the opening position was probably a good call because it might have been awkward trying to slot it in anywhere else on the record.
What to Fear finds Watkins opening up his style a bit, and it puts a more energetic spin on his music. He uses bass and drums on most of these songs and it feels like his quieter folk tendencies have been given the widescreen treatment. It just seems like he’s having more fun on this record. When it comes to his sometimes discomforting lyrical point of view, particularly on relationship songs, fun may not seem like an accurate term. But a case can be made for Watkins mostly playing characters, although your mileage may vary. Despite that, this is an album that musically, at least, finds Watkins asserting himself very successfully.