Listening to Sean Watkins’ fifth solo album, What to Fear, you might get whiplash trying to follow the wild swings in lyrical tone in just its first half. The title track opens things with an acidic attack on the media told from the perspective of the media, and it’s followed by the earnest, bite-sized confessions of “Last Time for Everything.”
“I Am What You Want” has menace and attraction in equal measure, as the narrator gently threatens to bend its target to his will: “But I swear you’ll learn to love me. / Darling, would I lie?”
“Keep Your Promises II” returns to a clever lyrical refrain from his previous album: “Just keep your promises. / Don’t let them leave your lips.” And that admonition to a serially dishonest partner segues back into a heartfelt love song in “Everything.”
Watkins, one-third of the platinum-selling Nickel Creek (with his fiddler sister Sara and mandolinist Chris Thile), doesn’t apologize for those abrupt shifts. In an interview last week promoting his April 14 Redstone Room show, he said: “If they like the songs, they like the songs. ... It’s all very me. It’s sincerely coming from me, and something that I feel is part of my musicality, so that’s okay. ... I’m not worried too much about the schizophrenic aspect, because I’m being honest.”
And that honesty – paired with his precise, simultaneously full and lean arrangements that serve the songs strikingly well – marks growth, he said. “In the past I’ve tried to be more cryptic for whatever reason. On this one, I tried to make the songs as clear as possible, whatever the lyrics are trying to say. And that was really fun. It’s nice to feel like I’m making progress.”
While the album is disjointed in its themes and messages, the gaps are smoothed by the smartly decorated music and Watkins’ expressive voice – both of which provide a warmth that disguises even his darkest material. The swells and energetic bass of “What to Fear” mimic the addictive allure of the media’s manufactured crises, while the sweetness of Watkins’ guitar and singing on “I Am What You Want” makes it easy to fall for such a creepy manipulator. The critique of “Keep Your Promises II” is so bright and light that it would be nearly impossible to take offense at the receiving end.
The singer/songwriter said he started the album with four core tracks – including “What to Fear” and “Last Time for Everything” – but he didn’t know if he wanted to present them with guitar, bass, and drums or an acoustic string band. “So I did the group of four songs both ways, and then I also overdubbed the string band onto the bass-and-drums version, which ended up being the best. I went in that direction to finish the record.”
The album has a thoughtful balance of intimacy and rich texture, and nary a note or instrument feels out-of-place or superfluous. Although Watkins is typically juggling multiple projects – Nickel Creek, his solo work, Fiction Family, and the Watkins Family Hour, to name a few – the record clearly had his full attention, carefully crafted and mature.
Watkins said that he’s also recently finished scoring an indie film and producing a new album by Tom Brosseau. For now, though, he’s focusing on touring behind What to Fear, and he said Nickel Creek has no plans at this point to follow up on 2014’s A Dotted Line – the trio’s first album in nine years.
“We’re all sort of in it for a while,” he said, before noting that Sara has a couple projects in the works, and Thile will in the fall be taking over hosting duties of public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion show. When I asked whether Thile’s gig might making touring difficult for Nickel Creek, he laughed and said, “Yeah. I imagine it will.”
Sean Watkins will perform on Thursday, April 14, at the Redstone Room (129 Main Street, Davenport; RiverMusicExperience.org). The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and also includes Anthony D’Amato. Advance tickets are $19.
For more information on Sean Watkins, visit SeanWatkins.com.