Album Review: Nickel Creek - “Celebrants”

Artistic elegance rules the day on the celebrated trio’s return after a nine year hiatus with their storytelling fifth studio album.

Once a collective of child prodigies, Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins are now settled into middle age and the music they make, while always of a familiar flair, settles quite nicely into that groove as they explore acoustic music’s outer reaches on a recording with a cohesive thread and through line of stories that make up Celebrants. Maturity informs this music, as it did on their previous album, 2014’s A Dotted Line, but don’t think that the collective’s playful way of marrying harmonic sounds with their guitar, fiddle and mandolin has lessened. If anything, it’s increased as the opening title track, “Celebrants,” showcases. This song is at once joyful as it is melodically playful and downright brilliant. It might serve as the best album opening track to an album that we’ll hear in all of 2023.

“Where The Long Line Leads” feels like the kind of song that’ll land on many playlists this year with its classic country melody in the verses leading into an ear-pleasing harmonic chorus and the tune also serves as a reminder of how fantastic of a vocalist Sara Watkins is. There’s a time when mainstream country radio would’ve played the dickens out of this one and maybe they’ll be adventurous and do so again (Chris Thile and Sean Watkins both deliver strong harmony vocals and instrumental set pieces within the song). The instrumentals “Going Out…” and “…Despite The Weather” find the band exploring their instruments in grand and orchestral-like ways with a sound which could be part of a magnificent film soundtrack (and indeed I do wonder how they’d tackle such a thing and hope that it happens at some time in the future). “Holding Pattern” is a sweetly melancholic ballad full of lush harmonies and quietly melodic moments. “Strangers” feels like classic Nickel Creek in both vocal and musical form, with lyrics which certainly were born from the strangeness of the pandemic (when this record was recorded).

It feels like a good time to mention that Celebrants was produced by Eric Valentine (Weezer, Grace Potter) and features Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Brothers Osborne, Carrie Underwood, “The Hamilton Mixtape”) on Bass. It’s a tight collective of top shelf talent that informs this genre-bending mixture of Americana music. “Goddamned Saint” tells a story both lyrically and musically and explores a musicality rarely heard in mainstream music releases while “Hollywood Ending” tells a story that demands your attention.

It’s been far too long since Nickel Creek graced us with a record but if the band’s collective and diverse artistic pursuits are as well-developed and crafted as Celebrants is, it’s the least we can do but be patient for when the band graces us with such glorious music again. Until then, Celebrants has joined my rotation of great albums to enjoy over and over again as I discover new pieces within it to be amazed by.