I was introduced to Nickel Creek during my freshman year of high school in 2005, and once I had fully ingested all of their “adult” albums, I decided that This Side (2002) was my favorite of the three. I listened to This Side more than Nickel Creek and Why Should the Fire Die combined, and it was This Side that I used to introduce people to Nickel Creek’s music. Listening to it now, I fully understand why I resonated so much with This Side as a teen. Underneath its relaxed demeanor, it’s a pretty angsty album. It’s also thematically complex in a way that Nickel Creek wasn’t. I also liked how often Sara Watkins was lead singer (though she had yet to break out her songwriting chops within the trio).
This Side does have its flaws. For me, they’re mostly in “Hanging by a Thread” and in “Brand New Sidewalk,” two songs that I have always hated. “Hanging by a Thread” (written by Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick) is… ugh. It’s whiny and clingy, and as a teen I couldn’t relate to it at all. As a young adult, I understand the emotion behind it, but I still can’t get on board. And I don’t know why I’m not down with “Brand New Sidewalk.” The instrumentals are gorgeous; it’s just never really been my jam.
But despite those two songs, This Side is basically perfection. It starts out with a smooth bang in the albums only instrumental “Smoothie Song” and dives straight into a Pavement cover that is perhaps the funniest song I’ve heard (“Spit on a Stranger”). Then after “Hanging by a Thread,” the tone of the album takes a sharp turn into deep introspection and the pursuit of wisdom.
The vocal harmonies in “I Should’ve Known Better” are sliding and harsh, punching out the anger and bitterness of the narrator, and they’re layered onto a slick fiddle track. They mix traditional storytelling and musical elements together to create “Seven Wonders,” “Sabra Girl,” and “House Carpenter” (a version of the Scottish ballad “The Daemon Lover,” this song can drive me nuts because she leaves the baby, but if it’s only been 3/4 of a year since she’s seen her lover, then dammit that baby is probably his and why?????). They also turn an eye on the effects of popularity and fame in “Green and Grey,” “Beauty and the Mess” and that darn “Brand New Sidewalk.” These songs are hard, without a clear demarcation of right and wrong for the characters they portray. They’re heavy, questioning the impermanence of life and love and drawing on biblical and historical imagery to heighten their tragedy. But they’re also fun, and musically more in line with “Spit on a Stranger” than you would think possible, given their lyrical themes. Plus, sometimes angst is fun. I hear all the teens are doing it.
In the midst of this existential treatise on humanity, Sean Watkins and Chris Thile punch through the malaise of the rest of the album with “This Side” and “Young,” two of my personal favorite songs (both by the band and in general). “This Side” is an up-tempo exploration of identity and nonconformity, and as a teenager, I felt like this song explained and defined me. Literally, if I met someone and they wanted to know more about me, I would play them “This Side.” Especially after I started traveling around the world, the line “It’s foreign on this side, but I feel like I’m home again” captured so perfectly the way I felt about life. Everything is foreign, and everything is home. And then of course there was “Young.” “Young” is a fun, beautiful ride through infatuation and puppy love carried by the strength of its vocal harmony into a level of passion and enjoyableness that other love songs never reach.
I still adore This Side. It’s wonderful and fun, and full of questions, just like I was when I was fifteen. Sometime in college, Why Should the Fire Die became more my speed, and now that I’ve listened through A Dotted Line on NPR a couple of times, I have no idea which Nickel Creek album is my favorite. But This Side is just as smooth and just as beautiful as it was when it came out, and for me, it’s got the added power of nostalgia.