It may seem hard to believe but Americana/bluegrass trio Nickel Creek – made up of siblings Sean and Sara Watkins alongside Chris Thile – have been performing together for almost 35 years. They released their self-titled debut album all the way back in 2000 and have put out a further six records since, winning a Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy along the way for 2002’s ‘This Side’. Now, after a break of nine years, they’re back with ‘Celebrants’, their first new album since 2014’s ‘A Dotted Line’.
The 18-track album opens with the title track, which features an orchestral intro peppered with claps and stomps before Sean delivers the line ‘my God it’s good to see you’ (and indeed it is!). From there the sea shanty-esque song grabs you with its rollercoaster of changing rhythms, plenty of folky twang and fiddle, quick lyrical delivery, punchy chords and the band’s trademark harmonies. It’s a joyous, melodic number that sets the template for the next hour of music and tells the listener to strap in and hang on tight.
One thing which particularly struck me with ‘Celebrants’ was its flow. This is not an album that encourages you to take breaks. Instead, the tracks often run onto each other, particularly when merging to and from the instrumental numbers like ‘Going Out…’ – with its energetic start slowing down into a darker feel before picking up again – as well as the rattling, dramatic wail of ‘…Despite The Weather’ and the lilting, romantic two-parter ‘Water Under The Bridge’. It’s a record that makes you stop what you’re doing and almost forces you to sit down and listen, in a way that feels refreshing in a culture where streaming dominates and we’re encouraged to stream individual tracks rather than dedicating a chunk of time to immersing ourselves in a project. There’s so much musical texture in this record and it really does encourage you to dig into it over repeated listens to unpick it all.
That changeability is present on the tracks with vocals too, whether that’s the call-and-response of ‘Strangers’, the layered ‘Holding Pattern’ with its downbeat sense of a relationship in limbo, or the psychedelic vibe of ‘From The Beach’, which features a clicking effect and vivid imagery that transports you to the sand. Elsewhere, the twists come through the lyrics and storytelling, such as on the hazy ‘The Meadow’, which practically oozes summer with its blend of slightly funky melody and drifting dreamy vocals, or the clever, bittersweet ‘Hollywood Ending’ which slowly unfurls its nostalgic narrative in a way that draws you in and doesn’t let go.
For me some of the strongest tracks involved Sara’s lead vocals. I loved ‘Thinnest Wall’, a rollicking, 90s grunge-influenced number with fast-paced fiddle and a biting lyric, the rawness of ‘Where The Long Line Leads’ which showed off the rawness and gravel in her voice alongside an almost sultry chorus, and ‘New Blood’ with its disjointed, driving rhythm, empowering lyrics and distorted vocals. The narrative-packed ‘Goddamned Saint’ and its reprise were also standouts, with their wonderful sense of atmosphere and cinematic wall of sound effect that smacks you in the faces as the group’s vocals break through the darkness to bring in a feeling of hope, whilst ‘To The Airport’ musically mimics a flight with its balance of bright melody and sharp lyrics.
The record closes with ‘Failure Isn’t Forever’, a light, sunny number full of yearning and with a hopeful message of not giving up. For me it really brings the record back full circle, echoing the celebratory feel of the title track and with a sense of emerging into the light again. It’s one that I can see sounding great in live shows – perhaps at a festival with the sun going down – and stays with you long after that final note drops away.
Overall Nickel Creek have made a strong return to the Americana scene with ‘Celebrants’. The album is a fantastic showcase for their instrumental skills and rich, luscious harmonies, whilst also keeping you as a listener on your toes by switching styles throughout – in some cases even during songs – and highlighting the sheer diversity of their sound by taking you on a complete musical journey. It’s also the kind of record that makes you feel like all is right with the world, and for one I hope we don’t have to wait another nine years to get more new music from them.
Track list: 1. Celebrants 2. Strangers 3. Water Under The Bridge, Part 1 4. The Meadow 5. Thinnest Wall 6. Going Out… 7. Holding Pattern 8. Where The Long Line Leads 9. Goddamned Saint 10. Stone’s Throw 11. Goddamned Saint, Reprise 12. From The Beach 13. To The Airport 14. …Despite The Weather 15. Hollywood Ending 16. New Blood 17. Water Under The Bridge, Part 2 18. Failure Isn’t Forever Record label: Repair Records/Thirty Tigers Release date: 24th March 2023
See Nickel Creek live in the UK this year:
26th August – Towersey Festival, Buckinghamshire
27th August – The Long Road Festival, Leicestershire
1st September – Barbican Centre, London