Love and Panic Dance Hand in Hand on Nickel Creek’s Celebrants

Music Reviews Nickel Creek
Love and Panic Dance Hand in Hand on Nickel Creek’s Celebrants

With the line “My god, it’s good to see you,” Nickel Creek welcomes you back after nine years with Celebrants, their first original album since 2014’s A Dotted Line, and quickly acknowledges that we have work to do. The trio, composed of Chris Thile, Sean Watkins and Sara Watkins, and joined by Mike Elizondo, has been making Americana music together in ebbs and flows for more than 20 years. By now, they know something about working together. What might lie ahead is “something we can sing through”—having incisively clever-sounding harmonies like theirs certainly helps.

The group rapidly weaves together and apart on this album, from the tearing pace of Thile’s mandolin or Sara Watkins’s fiddle to the quick wit of their lyrics. There is patience for moments of rest and quiet, but they do not suffer inactivity. The music demands an awareness of movement—“Celebrants” has literal stomping, whereas on “Strangers” the instrumentation takes on the sureness of footsteps, whether through the dancing lightness of Thile’s mandolin, or the certain stepping of Mike Elizondo’s bass. The mix of instrumental tracks with vocals reminds us that more than anything, Nickel Creek are avid musicians, full of feeling accented by their technical prowess. Sara Watkins’s jazz-inflected vocal slides on “Thinnest Wall” are made all the more exhilarating by their unexpectedness, mischievously playing with their usual bluegrass sound. The waterfalls of Thile’s picking on “Going Out…” not only enhance but create the world as it is on fresh evenings, the excitement and spinning of the night ahead already coating the inside of your mind. Though their dexterity is impressive, it serves as an emotional anchor, furthering the impact of the songs, rather than some technical competition.

Their sense of drama is not gone in the slightest, and the titular track is more than enough to sweep you along with them. Everything that follows only adds to the excitement. The whole album is built on these musical precipices: the slowing, the anticipation and the fall into instrumental frenzy. Luckily, the album is too well-balanced for the intensity to ever exhaust you, moving from songs that you have to sprint to keep up with to tracks that slow down due to fear or meditation. “Strangers” seesaws as a track between the slowly wonderful parts of rediscovering an estranged loved one, enmeshed with the quickening pace of attempting to connect after the world disconnected us all. Both parts of “Water Under The Bridge” ask you to take a momentary breath just after the start of the album and just before the end.

A good thing we are graced with these pauses, as they prepare us for the album’s various swan dives. Sometimes, these subtler tracks shine through as moments of meditative clarity, and sometimes they get lost in the ocean of this album. But what an ocean! Full of rising (“Stone’s Throw”) and falling (“Goddamned Saint, Reprise”) waters and organisms, it all churns together in existence. On songs like “Goddamned Saint,” this ocean turns into a biblical reckoning; Nickel Creek arches a wave over the listener, but builds you a boat at the last minute.

Their music has this gift of building things in your heart and in front of your very eyes that weren’t there just a moment before. The band moves as one organism, a rambling, shifting body of mandolin and fiddle and guitar and harmonies that swings you through different emotional realities on an LP that still manages to feel very cohesive. Each song feels like its own powerful, strange dream—the worlds described are vague yet familiar, tugging at something in your gut that instinctively pulls towards the characters and loves described. “From The Beach” has a strange, foreboding mysticism to it, while “…Despite The Weather” has the precision of raindrops. It’s a comprehensive painting of what it means to exist at a level of utmost sensitivity, a patchwork of every emotion that comes along with a desperation for change.

There’s a self-awareness to the intensity that feels almost bacchanalian at times. At other points, there’s an ashamed element that comes with striking realizations, not unlike the piercing clarity of “Rest Of My Life” off of A Dotted Line. “Where The Long Line Leads” throws everything into the air, declaring that “We only have a short time / But we’re making it a big one.” The frenzy can’t seem to decide whether it’s a celebration or a panic attack. It emerges after the solemnity of “Holding Pattern,” which finds Thile trying to soothe the abstract but deep-rooted feeling of dread of his loved one, combining the tenderness of love with the certainty of uncertainty in the world right now.

This is an album born out of fear but sustained by action. It’s all too easy to contextualize the LP in today’s sometimes chaos-choked world, even though the lyrics mostly put this balance of anxiety and action on personal terms instead of universal. There’s an “At least we can try” attitude to the work, seen in the last track, appropriately titled “Failure Isn’t Forever.” “We’re going to need to believe first,” the band reminds us.

At the heart of this album is a feeling of running a losing race, with words of panic and love jumbling together until you can’t separate the notions anymore. To love anything or anyone right now is to agree to go through a period of immense change and dread together, and to risk losing each other. You have to choose your partners in forging ahead carefully, and Nickel Creek is more locked in and together than ever.

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