Review: Sara Watkins, 'Young In All The Wrong Ways'
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
If Sara Watkins hadn't thrown a fistful of salad, toppled a pineapple and squished a deviled egg during the otherwise well-mannered, family-dinner-themed music video for "Move Me," a potent song from her new album Young In All The Wrong Ways, there probably wouldn't be any footage of her behaving badly. And to think that the 35-year-old fiddle player first stepped onto the national stage in her late teens.
Pop and rock have long histories of fetishizing youthful rebellion, but Watkins came up in a bluegrass world of generation-spanning festivals, picking contests, music camps and mentors that channeled youthful energy toward mastering time-tested craft and respecting musical elders. Before Nickel Creek (the acoustic trio she started with her brother Sean and their childhood friend Chris Thile) drew a college-age crowd with earnestness, instrumental precision and expansive instincts in the early aughts, there wasn't much of a template for string-band music that reveled in youth. Ever since the group took a break a decade ago, she's been staking out her own territory at the intersection of roots-mindedness, pop experimentation and self-expression, even as she's bounced between supporting roles (with The Decemberists and Prairie Home Companion) and low-key collaborations (in Watkins Family Hour and I'm With Her).
Though Watkins waded into songwriting on her first two solo albums, 2009's elegantly sentimental self-titled set and 2012's Sun Midnight Sun, both could be considered showcases for her imaginative interpretations and arrangements. That the latter album introduced a newfound bite in her musical ideas and performances was lost on those who'd pegged her as a sweet and sunny innocent. But on this latest 10-song collection — every bit of which she either wrote or co-wrote, and very little of which prominently features her fiddle playing, though it was produced by another highly accomplished fiddler in Gabe Witcher — she speaks a language of cutting clarity.
The title track opens the album and sets the tone. Watkins momentarily loses herself in lulling wistfulness, only to lurch into a rebuke of naïveté, bearing down on her scorn for once-automatic acquiescence over spiky eruptions of electric guitar and a tumultuous drum groove. "I'm going out to see about my own frontier," she insists twice in a row, sounding determinedly detached. Watkins isn't acting out belated rebellion so much as disrupting comfortable certainty and fleshing out an adult, feminine vantage point — one that chooses which attachments to cultivate.
Sometimes Watkins applies a soft touch in sound or sentiment. Cradled by Jon Brion's dew-drop plinking of piano keys and her dainty plucking on ukulele, "The Love That Got Away" conveys the melancholy awareness that romantic choices are often haunted by the thought of unexplored options. In the orchestrated ballad "Invisible," she accepts the fact that beginning a relationship perfectly in step with someone doesn't ensure that the solidarity will last. "When we were young and truth was absolute / We stood side by side defending what we knew," she sighs, her phrasing feathery, cursive and rueful. "Today we walk together, but one's ahead and one's behind / And if there's an answer here, then I am blind / Neither you nor I can see a right side this time." The gently galloping singer-songwriter pop tune "Say So" clings to hope that an alienated comrade will someday draw close again, while "Tenderhearted" is a hymn to emotional vulnerability.
But in the artfully uninhibited pop-rock tantrum "Move Me," Watkins delivers the chorus with the urgency of someone digging her fingernails into your arm. The wry string-band romp "One Last Time," which boasts harmonies from My Morning Jacket's Jim James, turns courtly flirtation on its head and makes a show of distrusting a lover's tossed-off lines. And the honky-tonk two-step "The Truth Won't Set Us Free" is her chance to puncture an oft-used platitude: No matter what people say, a bit of soul-baring won't magically fix a disintegrated 20-year partnership.
By now, Watkins has been in the spotlight for half her life. Never before has she made her voice heard quite this clearly.