Nickel Creek

REVIEW: Nickel Creek’s “Celebrants” is a Refreshing Theatrical Journey


Having a new Nickel Creek album out is beyond comforting. Just hearing Grammy winners Chris Thile, Sean Watkins and Sara Watkins again brings warmth, but it is the message of Celebrants, a post-pandemic concept album with 18 interconnected songs, that makes hearing them again an experience. In many ways it’s more a theatrical production than it is an album, one that shares the hardships we’ve all experienced while also providing a healthy dose of optimism.

It’s been nine years since Nickel Creek’s last studio album, and, with Celebrants, you get the idea that being away from creating new music was just as hard for the trio as it was for their fans. This is clear in the first line of the title track: “My God it’s good to see you.”

“Strangers” is where Nickel Creek really returns to form. There’s a brilliant breakdown, followed by a breathtaking back and forth by Thile on mandolin and Sara on fiddle.

The more you listen to Celebrants, the clearer it is how much the trio has grown, together and individually. This all comes through with each new poignant, ambitious composition, one weaving into the next naturally and smoothly. “Water Under the Bridge,” “Goddamned Saint,” and “Going Out…” all reprise, and all remind the listener how magnificent it is to hear a well-constructed album. Don’t rely on the singles here, Nickel Creek fans, take it all in one song at a time, and listen to it again. And again.

The transitions are reminiscent of a musical, especially the way Nickel Creek returns to several refrains, with harmonies that would even impress Alison Krauss (especially on “To the Airport,” the most spellbinding track on the album. The A capella part gives me goosebumps). 

The musical artistry and arrangements of Celebrants take the listener in so many different directions. They all lay it out on the line here, giving everything. Take “Thinnest Wall,” where Sara shows off her remarkable vocal range, and “Where the Long Line Leads,” where Sara sounds more like Patty Griffin and Thile rocks out on the mando so hard you wouldn’t be surprised if he starts playing it with his teeth when you see him live. “Long Line” also has a catchy, prescient hook: “We only have a short time, but we’re making it a big one.”

“Going Out…” somehow embodies how we all felt once we got out of COVID. Never has the violin spoken to my soul so intimately. Sara’s work on the intro captures so much of the joy and celebration involved with once again being able to gather, once again being able to share a space with those we love; to share music, a treasure that was almost unbearable to lose. This feeling still lingers (just as it does on the album, reprising with “…Despite the Weather,” a jam you don’t want to end, thanks to Sean’s guitar leads).

Every tune on Celebrants offers something special. “Holding Pattern” is the tune that gets stuck in your head the most, and gets you snapping your fingers. It also features Thile’s best vocal performance. “From the Beach” is the most seductive, sultry tune on the album, which again is kudos to Sean’s lead work. “Stone’s Throw” is a rocker with a masterful arrangement. The transitions essentially switch from rock to bluegrass in a way very few other bands – if any – can accomplish. On ”Hollywood Ending,” Sean’s vocal quality and melody is reminiscent of James Taylor, and the last track, “Failure Isn’t Forever,” is the perfect note to end on. It features a wise, simple aphorism we all need to hear: “Failures aren’t forever/unless they quit wondering how to get better.” 

Speaking of wise, Nickel Creek made a great call recording Celebrants at RCA Studio A in Nashville with longtime producer/collaborator Eric Valentine (Queens of the Stone Age, Grace Potter, Weezer) and Grammy-winning producer-songwriter Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Eminem, Joy Oladokun). In addition to adding his touch as a producer, he also played bass.

Celebrants is out March 24 wherever you stream music. Check it out, and be intentional about listening to it all the way through. It’s a masterpiece.

Highlights include “Holding Pattern,” “To the Airport,” “From the Beach” “Hollywood Ending.”

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Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Nickel Creek’s 3 Out of Print Re-Releases are Exquisite and Remarkable





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