After seven years apart, Nickel Creek is back with “A Dotted Line.” As in the early part of their career together, Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins are doing things that no one else is doing while serving an audience that is interested in picking up the Nickel Creek story where it left off.
Nickel Creek tends to get dubbed as a “bluegrass” band, though they don’t play much bluegrass, if any. Rather, in their career together, they have been interested in taking their instruments into new territory, and (either consciously or unconsciously) exploring the boundaries between genres, including pop, classical and bluegrass. They’ve done traditional songs, as with “The Fox” on their first release, though they also range across the musical landscape, such as Thile’s setting for Robert Burn’s poem, “Flow Gently Sweet Afton,” which was also on that debut album. It’s still hard to believe that three musicians who were so young at the time could create something so confident, interesting, and beautiful.
Despite the hiatus, their release this year, titled “A Dotted Line,” picks things up exactly where the band left off. The range of material is broad. The beautiful ballad “21st of May” sounds like something that Norman Blake might have written in the ’80s. The arrangement stays close to the traditional form that the song is set within, though it’s also clear that they’re not putting on a costume but rather playing in a style that they know intimately and clearly adore. With “Elephant in the Corn” and “Elsie” the trio moves further along the spectrum but still within the typical string-band territory and delivering careful, stunning performances.
That said, this is also a band that relates to pop music as intelligently and impressively as they do traditional forms. You’ll hear nods to the Beatles on “A Dotted Line,” as in the slurred vocal harmonies on “Rest of My Life” and “Where Is Love Now.” They engage with pop music on its own terms, honestly and convincingly taking up the energy and rebellion of youth, as in “You Don’t Know What’s Going On.” That said, “Hayloft” is the true barb in this collection. It’s a cover of a Mother Mother tune. I hate, it, but even then it’s hard to fault the mastery that they bring to it. It may be off putting, but it’s still interesting.
This album, rightly, will get a lot of attention. You just don’t see this kind of skill very often, including technical skill as well as interpretive skill, courage and confidence. As players, the three are entirely sympathetic to one another, and their ability to play as an ensemble is remarkable.
You also don’t often come across albums that weren’t made in order to advance a career, or make money, or market a tour (though it probably will do all of those things). The album demonstrates, were we ever to doubt it (and I did) that Nickel Creek remains a grouping that offers each of the players some musical opportunities that they simply can’t get elsewhere. For us, the result is interesting, challenging, enjoyable, and a great way to spend the better part of an hour.