Watkins opens up in songwriting debut
For an artist to break out of a group setting and go solo takes a certain amount of risk with an uncertain amount of reward. Will fans of the group follow and flock to the new effort, or will they simply long for the more familiar sounds of the group they once knew? For a musician like Sara Watkins, who took the leap to front-woman after playing a fierce fiddle in alt-country bluegrass giant Nickel Creek, the risk is worth taking.
On Young In All The Wrong Ways, her third solo album in seven years but the first on which she wrote or co-wrote all the tracks, Watkins unfurls a powerful voice and wields direct, poignant songs that ought to permanently secure her reputation as a dynamic folk songwriter in addition to her accomplished group resume (which includes not just Nickel Creek, but I’m With Her and Watkins Family Hour).
Watkins starts strong in melody and spirit on the opening title track, where she reflects on what she’s learned from a relationship gone by in an electrified, off-kilter mid-tempo jam. “I’ve gone the miles and God knows I’ve got the fight,” she sings twice in a row, backed heartily by staggered rhythms before a soothing chorus where she sings the titular line.
Watkins lays bare her intentions and motivations, offering a narrative of what she is holding onto or letting go of as she begins this new chapter of songwriting. “Without a Word” is a heartbreaking take on the one who got away, with a patient brush-stroke rhythm and a beautiful instrumental break that perfectly balances keys and strings. “Like New Year’s Day” is one of the most timeless tracks, evoking songwriters like Bonnie Raitt or James Taylor as she holds up a picture of the western desert landscape as a mirror for one’s own features and boundaries.
While the ballads are memorable, Watkins’ mid-tempo takes are diverse and delightful. The saloon-style “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free” provides piano and harmonies aplenty, while the playful “One Last Time” is a sassy kiss-off featuring Jim James of My Morning Jacket.
However, it’s the first single “Move Me” that seals the deal on the record being the strongest effort from Watkins to date. It’s a song unlike the rest of the album with the rock-and-roll edge her voice takes on, straining as she reaches the top of her register to shout the chorus, before she ever-so-lightly and smoothly glides back down. It’s a powerful performance, and an aggressive song that ought to make the rounds through Americana listening circles, if not for Watkins’ prowess, but for the bona fide jam session that rounds out the final minute.
Young In All The Wrong Ways is a tight, compact and full 40 minutes of music across 10 tracks, proving a careful editing eye that left no filler to find. The arrangements, produced by Gabe Witcher, let Watkins’ fellow musicians shine, including guitarist Chris Eldridge, bass player Paul Kowert, keys player Benmont Tench and musicians Jon Brion and Jay Bellerose. Harmonious and angelic backing vocals come courtesy of Watkins’ band mates in I’m With Her, the talented and smooth Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, setting off Watkins’ own tone with soft support that is perhaps best executed on the stunning, stilling last minute of “Invisible.”
Every track on Watkins’ record has a beautiful sincerity of spirit, a keen self-awareness of wondering where it all went wrong or when it all might go right. She skillfully walks the fine line between emotional and overwrought, never overly gushing but conveying her feelings with maturation and perception. Fans of Nickel Creek whose thirst was whetted by the band’s reunion in 2014 should jump at the chance to hear this latest effort from Watkins, and early indicators prove they have — Watkins was the third-best selling artist in pop singer-songwriters’ on Amazon behind Carole King and Adele just four days after Young was released.
Young In All The Wrong Ways is a story of one woman’s evolution, but her vulnerability, perspective and thoughtfulness taps into something greater. Watkins has described this record as “a breakup album with myself,” full of the musings and narratives that someone pulls together as they transition from one stage of life to another. Should her next chapter continue to feature this open-book perspective, should she continue to command her talent in this thoughtful and emotive way, then Watkins’ best work is still ahead of her.