Nickel Creek's third release, Why Should the Fire Die?, is quite an impressive album. As with all of their previous releases (including solo albums and collaborations with other artists), this album showcases the immense instrumental talents possessed by the trio, each of whom displayed prodigious skills from youth. Additionally, the album makes great use of their vocal talents, featuring some fantastic harmonizing. But, although the band features traditional bluegrass instruments (guitar, mandolin and violin), this album, even moreso than their previous efforts, demonstrates why "bluegrass" is a completely inadequate genre description for Nickel Creek. Granted, there are several tracks that harken back to previous albums, such as the instrumentals "Scotch & Chocolate" and "Stumptown," as well as the soft-yet-introspective "Doubting Thomas." But the overall feel of the new album is quite different from past offerings. I've given it two complete listenings, and I'm still not sure what words are best to describe the album. "Edgier" and "heavier" might be one way to compare the album with previous efforts: although they are still playing the same traditional bluegrass instruments, the production on the album gives them more impact and percussive attack -- the opening chords of "Best of Luck" are a great example. Nickel Creek has always made great use of vocal harmony, but this album features many complex and sometimes dissonant harmonies, such as on "Eveline." Several tracks featuring more ragged and intense lead vocals than one would expect. There are definite jazz and rock influences present, from the unexpected key modulations in "Can't Complain" to the hammering outro of "Helena." But the great thing about the album is that the new stylistic influences never sound derivative. Nickel Creek has managed to mature and evolve their sound while still making it distinctly their own.
So that's my initial assessment. I haven't had time to digest all the lyrics yet. Many of the songs deal with broken or failing relationships, so there is a darker feel to the whole album. Yet glimmers of hope manage to surface, especially in the wistful and honest "Doubting Thomas." The song confesses a crisis of faith, yet it still manages to end on a note of hope. Many of the lyrics are much more "poetic" than those from previous albums, so I'll probably need more time to decipher them.
I'll certainly need a few more listens to render a final verdict, but I think this may be Nickel Creek's best album yet, and that certainly says a lot.