I don’t know a huge amount about Sara Watkins. I’ve seen her live once, on the I’m With Her tour also featuring Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz. I’ve got one of her albums (two now). I know she was something of a child prodigy, being in the professional progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek from childhood onwards. I know I like her demeanour. More on that in a minute.
But I did sort of have the impression that it was probably right to approach her latest album, Young In All The Wrong Ways, with few defined expectations. And I was right! (I so often am.)
Watkins is one of these mad multi-instrumentalists (growing up as a pro bluegrass musician probably encourages this) but her primary instrument is the fiddle. Watching her play alongside O’Donovan and Jarosz (also with instruments of all kinds hanging off her), my companion was moved to point out that Watkins was the only fiddler he’d ever seen not look awful while they’re playing.
Make of that what you will.
Without wanting to draw all the violinists of the world upon my head, or to hurt their feelings, I concur that Watkins isn’t what you expect (again). I adored her, live. She has this character-from-My So-Called Life-grown-up vibe going on – dresses like the shy girl who finally gets kissed near the end of the high school film; talks like the wise-cracking elder cop in a buddy movie; plays like, well, a bluegrass musician. Chats away to the audience. I guess that is something you might expect from somebody who’s been doing this for twenty-five odd years.
Sorry, got distracted by ephemera there. I suppose what I’m leading up to is how not-bluegrass (of any ilk) this album is. There’s hardly any fiddle (except on ‘One Last Time’ where it makes a very welcome appearance; I defy you to sit still). The musical mood is all over the place. I lost count of the different artists I was reminded of. At one point she sounds like nobody so much as Bjork.
None of this is complaint, I’m just startled. The album starts with the title track, and for a couple of seconds it’s all folky; then the drums start. Yes, drums. The word which occurs to me on some of these first few tracks is grunge. As Seinfeld would say, ‘not that there’s anything wrong with that’.
Lyrically – emotionally – it’s more of a piece, and the piece is fairly fierce. Lord, but this fella of Sara Watkins’ is inadequate; or maybe it’s her past self that’s got her here, but either way she’s annoyed. This is one jaded woman. ‘I’ve got the miles and God knows I’ve got the fight,’ she sings. He’s getting ditched; she offers him some slight consolation, he might find someone else in the future, but ultimately she’s got no time to worry about him. ‘I’m going out to see about my own frontier.’
The afore-mentioned ‘One Last Time’ is lighter in tone and is kind of old-fashioned in style, in a conscious way which reminds me of Zooey Deschanel’s She & Him albums, but it has that bluegrass tinge to differentiate it; not only the fiddle, but an irresistible banjo (I think; look I’m not a scholar, and I don’t have the liner notes yet) line. And it fits into a proud tradition of pink-pearl-sheened tough-hearted woman pop.
Then we get onto ‘Move Me’. This is the one with the video that has Watkins throwing food at the camera; I enjoyed the video but it verges too close on comedy to do justice to the song. Here is the grunge again in full force – Watkins is proper mad. This man really will not do. He’s a lazy thinker. We won’t tolerate that. We will SHOUT. This is a barnstormer; I can only imagine a big crowd going nuts for it because frankly, my throat gets raw while this is playing.
Country does stick its nose over the parapet sometimes; ‘The Truth Won’t Set Us Free’ may defy tradition lyrically, but it has a sweet country sound, and is thoroughly, properly sad. In a life-is-really-hard kind of way. You know. Let’s just all admit that after twenty years it can by the plain old boring shit, not glamorous lies or cheating, that breaks you. ‘A house you can’t afford’ is a killer.
That’s the thing about this; she’s jaded, she’s cynical, she’s brassy, but whatever inspired this album is fundamentally sad. She’s pleading on ‘Say So’ – ‘Home is where you say it is, deep as you can dig for it… I haven’t lost you yet’. Having rejected nostalgia vigorously on the title track, she’s really sick with it on ‘Without A Word’. And ‘Invisible’ thoroughly indulges the sad-seeker – I don’t quite know what it’s about but it still gets me at the core; this is a woman who knows what to do with a harmony line, and she can slay you any time she feels like it.
And then along comes ‘Tenderhearted.’ Watkins questions all that’s gone before; the attitude she’s been proclaiming – strong and tough and un-needy and full of self-determination – is a route to sorrow, not fulfillment. ‘So I built a wall around my heart… nothing that surrounds it survives but fear and doubt.’
So what’s the answer? Am I really to risk everything just to ‘let life overflow’? I’m all sad and confused and I don’t quite know what the message is but I want to lie in the bath and listen some more and maybe I’ll work it out.
I am sure about one thing: it’s definitely time for that bloke to fuck off.