Album Review: Nickel Creek, ‘Celebrants’

Nickel Creek’s new album Celebrants—their first in nine years—opens on a joyous note with handclaps and shouts of acclamation that welcome us warmly into a communion of friends who’ve come to rejoice over the dawning of a rebirth.

The title track invites us to become once again celebrants of the resiliency of the human spirit and the enduring character of love to heal fissures and cracks in the human and natural condition. The lyrical and musical canniness of the song—“celebrant,” of course, refers to congregants who’ve gathered to celebrate holy communion in church, but here the word moves deeper to reveal the ways we revel in the holiness of our friendships with others and our connections to the world around us—establishing themes that weave through the rest of the album.

This much-anticipated album finds mandolinist Chris Thile, violinist Sara Watkins, and guitarist Sean Watkins continuing their decades-long musical journey; they’re also joined here by bassist Mike Elizondo.

The title track slides effortlessly into “Strangers,” a shimmering roundelay that opens gently with guitar strums, glistening harmonies, and mandolin runs before taking flight on the wings of Sara’s propulsive violin. The song reminds us that distance cultivates forgetfulness of friends, often turning them into strangers. About halfway through the song, as Watkins’ really violin takes off, the tone changes as the distance fades and the laughter and love the strangers share remind them of the threads that have always held them together.

Almost an interlude, “Water Under the Bridge, Part 1,” features the resplendent harmonies of the trio; much of the song is sung a cappella, evoking the purity of the water that flows under a bridge. The song also conveys the exquisite union of emotional streams that converge when old friends share with each other the eddies—the troubles—that have passed in their lives like “water under the bridge.”

The instrumental “Going Out…” opens with Thile’s lightning mandolin picking riding over Sean’s jet-fueled guitar strumming; Sara’s violin runs pick up the musical theme from Thile’s mandolin notes, and the song scampers away until its midpoint, when it pulls back momentarily before ascending again into the stratosphere.

The gentle, somber ballad “Holding Pattern” evokes the stasis of a mid-air holding pattern as it alludes to a similar state between lovers. At the same time, the singer pleads for his lover to hold him in the midst of a world falling apart: “In a holding pattern/Circling around/Hold me and I’ll hold you darling…/We’re in a holding pattern/So hold me darling/While the world burns down.”

The trio rocks righteously on “Where the Long Line Leads,” with Sara’s exuberant vocals driving the song around musical curves and careening down the guitar straightaway laid down by Sean’s propulsive guitar work.

The album closes with the shimmering “Failure Isn’t Forever,” which flows in on Thile’s bright fingerpicking, creating an echoing musical foundation for the gently rendered verses. Sara’s violin courses energetically over Sean’s dynamic guitar as the chorus ascends with a hopefulness that’s born out of community—“we’re all in it together.” The album ends as it began, with a joyous celebration of the redemptive possibilities of human community.

Celebrants lifts us, carrying us into the depths of the human condition and then transporting us into its heights. The trio’s transformative musical styles—bluegrass shading into classical sliding into jazz—evoke the ups and downs of life as we know, and as we have known, it during the isolating days and months of the COVID pandemic.  As the album unfolds cinematically, revealing the shadows of loss but reveling in the brilliance of love, Nickel Creek takes us on a journey that we don’t want to miss.


Celebrants is available HERE.


Music & Merch

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