In November 2007, Nickel Creek, a progressive bluegrass band composed of Chris Thile on mandolin and siblings Sara and Sean Watkins on fiddle and guitar, respectively (and all providing vocals in order to capture those necessary bluegrass harmonies), played their final show before an indefinite hiatus in order to expand their musical horizons. On February 3rd, 2014, the band announced that they were back together, with a new album due at some point in the spring of this year and an accompanying tour starting with two nights in April at The Ryman, the same venue where they played their final show before their hiatus. With this announcement, Nickel Creek also released the single “Destination,” their first since 2005’s “When In Rome.”
I personally was not a Nickel Creek fan until late 2012, simply due to lacking knowledge about them until much after they began their hiatus. At this time is when I discovered Chris Thile through Punch Brothers, the group he has focused on since Nickel Creek’s hiatus was announced, being first captivated by their bluegrass cover of The Strokes’ “Reptilia” that my friend showed me on YouTube, and finding my interest in them solidified by hearing their song “Movement And Location,” with a sonic atmosphere more akin to a Radiohead record than a bluegrass band. It was after looking at Thile’s biography that I found Nickel Creek as a past project of his, a project that for the most part had a much sweeter, contemporary sound than Punch Brothers. Their music captivated me in a different way than did the experimentalism in the boundaries of bluegrass that I heard in Punch Brothers; quite simply, Nickel Creek songs like “When You Come Back Down” and “The Lighthouse’s Tale” relax me and bring a feeling of contentment.
As demonstrated in his work in Punch Brothers, Chris Thile has most definitely lived up to the band’s message of pushing their musical boundaries that was given as the reason for their hiatus. The Watkins siblings most certainly have as well. Sara has put out two solo albums, as well as recording and/or touring with artists such as The Decembrists, John Mayer, and Robert Earl Keen. Sean has worked in a collaborative effort with Switchfoot’s frontman Jon Foreman called Fiction Family, and became a core member of the supergroup Works Progress Administration (in which Sara also participated when her solo project allowed).
“Destination” is the first taste of what this hiatus resulted in for the group’s maturity as individuals coming back together as a collective. While they have had songs in the past (like the aforementioned “When In Rome”) that have a strong aggressive character, “Destination” pushes that further, and it is interesting that this is the first new material that they chose to put out when their most well-known songs are much more soothing.
The song starts with a quick succession of guitar strums that are left to ring as Sara Watkins takes over an exposed lead vocal part that only has Chris Thile playing a percussive rhythm on a muted mandolin as backing. This is the first major influence of the hiatus that I found in the song; while Nickel Creek had previously employed the mandolin as a percussive instrument, featuring it in prominent and exposed manners was one of the characteristics that I identified in Punch Brothers.
At the chorus, Sara is joined on vocals by a two-part harmony provided by her band mates, and Sean Watkins’ guitar comes in strong with marcato strums on the downbeats, giving the chorus a full, strong, and almost instrumentally rock sound. The chorus ends with a call-and response between Sara’s lead and the harmonies and a quick, soft, syncopated riff to bring the listener back to the noticeably quieter verse. In fact, it is in the second verse that the listener keys in on the fact that no matter the dynamic level in the instrumental track, the song never loses its driving pulse; the verses are propelled by the use of the exposes percussive mandolin and the chorus keeps up the exact same pulse with the metronomic guitar.
The short, muted guitar riff played at the end of the first chorus becomes central to the song’s bridge, being layered with a mandolin countermelody (that includes chokes on the half notes to keep the song’s rhythm pushing forward in conjunction with the guitar’s syncopation), before the vocal rejoins. The bridge also sounds to have a string instrument being played, but too low to be Sara’s fiddle; perhaps an upright bass or a cello was used here, and hopefully it’s Sara showing a wider range of strings.
The song closes with a repeat of the chorus and an additional repeat of its call-and-response section before coming to an instrumental outro. Sean’s guitar continues with its rhythm from the call an response, which has evolved from the staccato quarters at the beginning of the chorus, and Chris adds in his mandolin line from the bridge before the fiddle finally enters the song. The fiddle first plays swelling long tones fitting in with the chord progression before joining in with the mandolin melody through extremely short bow strokes, continuing to push the song’s energy forward even as it gradually fades out.
All in all, with my experience with both the Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek, “Destination” excites me for what Chris Thile and Sean & Sara Watkins have waiting to be recorded and released. A reunion is always a big deal, and Nickel Creek chose the perfect song to ramp up excitement for theirs; “Destination” has just as much energy as they are hoping to ignite in their fans, be they the loyalists who have known them from the very beginning, those that were late to the party, or those just now hearing them for the first time.