A quiet sound travels through the songs on Nickel Creek’s Celebrants, one that evokes people leaving their fenced-in lives, crossing roads, fields, and bridges to meet in a rundown cathedral. The band plays, the people gather, and the common sound blows dust from the pews, rings from every corner and rafter.
This is what came to mind as I listened to the natural resonance of guitar, mandolin and violin, as well as the unmistakable glory of three superlative songwriters creating together again. “My God, it’s good to see you / Right here in the flesh,” Chris Thile sings on the opening title track. “Where we can turn the stuff we need to / Get off of our chests / Into something we can sing through.”
“Celebrants” and the following song, “Strangers,” form an extended welcome (“It’s been too long, stranger,” the trio sings on the latter). And it’s only fitting, as there are so many distances to close: pandemic exiles, the quieter forces which separate us in any season, and, not least, the span of nine years since the last Nickel Creek album.
Elapsed time—and the way Nickel Creek’s members spent it—almost makes Celebrants feel less like a return and more like the arrival of a modern supergroup (even if this is the band Thile and siblings Sean and Sara Watkins formed more than 30 years ago as San Diego-area kids, the band which made them Grammy winners). Each member comes home ready to play to the collective’s strengths, but also carrying who they’ve become through other projects: Thile from numerous musical adventures, most notably bluegrass intelligentsia Punch Brothers; the Watkins siblings from their solo records, Watkins Family Hour, and Sara’s work in I’m With Her.
Nickel Creek sings of connection early and often. On the title cut, Thile longs to recover a beloved congregation forged through music, to recognize “Heaven’s always been in this cathedral / That we all rebuild nightly together.” “Strangers” sounds like those warm and eager moments when old friends catch up, dancing away from questions of what they lost to time and circumstance (“Where’s the get / in being together?”).
The abiding beauty of Celebrants comes as Nickel Creek matches the message and music, forming sounds of connection. They close around timeworn, seemingly innate harmonies on the brief “Water Under the Bridge, Pt. 1”; bend their notes together, making one voice of three on “The Meadow”; and resemble an angel choir on the coda of “To the Airport,” each note a drop of beauty reshaping the air around it. When their voices divide, as on the folk fugue of “Strangers,” it’s to create conversation and to finish each other’s sentences for love and solidarity’s sake.
There are so many distances to close: pandemic exiles, the quieter forces which separate us in any season, and the span of nine years since the last Nickel Creek album.
To draw this close, to focus our attention through our voices, yields discovery. We see ourselves more clearly, others as they truly are. On “Goddamned Saint,” possibly the album’s truest crest, Thile re-examines his point of view, reconsidering a fellow artist:
Though he wrote like a sinner
As far as I could understand
From the front pew of my choir
But now I watched
As he walked the walk
Like a goddamned saint
As the song grows, its lovely lilt strummed into something like kinetic energy, he wonders how this new way of seeing might work itself out in a world where we won’t even share a drink “with anyone who disagrees.”
“To the Airport” furthers this sense of revelation, paying homage to the beleaguered and benevolent who navigate both sides of that patience-draining waystation, people literally trying to move their way through the world. Passengers, gate agents, baggage handlers, unknowing little kids—we’re all fellow travelers, the song concludes, all carrying the baggage of sinners and saints within us.
This line of thinking, the very heart of the Celebrants project, finds ultimate fulfillment on the closer, “Failure Isn’t Forever.” The trio sounds out hope for creating a renewed community of “strangers, friends and lovers / who believe that failure isn’t forever / It’s now and we’re all in it together.” In this, they echo the push of grace, which sends our sin as far as the east is from the west. They convene the beginnings of a joyful assembly that is growing in numbers and one day will gather in full.
If gospel gestures—of drawing close and judging not—define Celebrants, “Failure Isn’t Forever” affirms the great, surprising reversal of God’s kingdom. All that seems to linger—our self-inflicted wounds and shame—will dissipate in the light of forever. What seems elusive right now—the communion of saints, strangers, and bandmates picking up where they left off—will last with eternal staying power.
“Failure Isn’t Forever” closes Celebrants yet represents the beginning of something, the first notes of a crescendo swelling toward eternity. Too often we focus on the end of the world, when Nickel Creek seems more interested in the ends of the world—why it all matters, what it’s all for. Celebrants envisions a world in which the closing trumpet call gives way to the warm sound of strings and a full house that’s been gathering itself across the years.
We gather together to shake off our failures. We gather to remember we belong to each other—and that this belonging cannot be forfeited. And as we gather, our distances shrink, unlikely saints growing as close as the notes of a renewed harmony.