When Beyoncé dropped her Lemonade bomb on the world last April, she more or less wrecked the curve for anyone else putting out a breakup record in 2016. The world was captivated by the album and its visual counterpart, especially with regard to the songs' deeply personal content about Beyoncé's relationship with Jay Z and allegations that he'd cheated on her. The Lemonade spectacle was bound to overshadow any other breakup records released last year. But one album in particular felt like a kindred spirit: Sara Watkins's Young in All the Wrong Ways.
Now thirty-five, Watkins has spent most of her life dedicated to music. She joined the forward-looking bluegrass band Nickel Creek at the tender age of eight, and it launched her toward national recognition and a Grammy in her early twenties. There, she sang and played a fiery fiddle, but her own songs-with-lyrics didn't appear until the band's 2005 record, Why Should the Fire Die?. For the past decade, Watkins has busied herself with a number of projects: the Watkins Family Hour band with her brother, Sean; a collaborative trio with Aoife O'Donovan and Sarah Jarosz; a brief Nickel Creek reunion in 2014; and two other solo LPs. In her later body of work, Watkins has gradually shifted away from her signature instrument, though she's occasionally stepped in on records for session work—like Father John Misty's 2012 LP, Fear Fun.
Young in All the Wrong Ways, released via New West Records last summer, is Watkins's strongest solo effort yet. It's raw and fragile, vulnerable and assertive, in equal turns. "Move Me," the record's first single, is a wide-open, reaching song, with Watkins nearly screaming her plea of, "I want you to move me" in the chorus. She's demanding more of herself and the world around her, and Young in All the Wrong Ways feels like she's throwing down the gauntlet.
Unlike Lemonade, though, Watkins has said in multiple interviews that it's more of a breakup record with herself rather than any one person. She's largely skirted providing specifics about these songs (save for "Say So," which she's said is about feeling frustrated with a friend struggling with an addiction), speaking vaguely about moving through different kinds of relationships. Even so, Watkins offers a cohesive, strong-spirited affirmation of her own power moving through the world. "I'm goin' out to see about my own frontier," she belts on the opening track. She does just that on Young in All the Wrong Ways, and in the process delivers a cathartic exploration of herself that, though personal, has an almost universal resonance.
"The Truth Won't Set Us Free" is the closest Watkins gets to the twang of her earlier days on Young in All the Wrong Ways, with a shuffling rhythm bolstered by honky-tonk piano. It sounds like it could be a new country standard, a fact that's reaffirmed by Watkins's plain lyrical delivery about hardship and trying to wrest herself from the comfort—and stagnancy—of a settled relationship. And at one point she sings, "In a house we can't afford, we take on water and just keep bailing." How many other songs so frankly address the looming reality of financial ruin?
Though Watkins spends the record digging into heavy emotional territory, she still carries a breezy sense of humor—on the bouncy "One Last Time," she's wry and even a little cheeky. "Don't save my number, and you won't ever find me callin'," she quips, the phrase punctuated with a winking flutter of an organ. It's a sorry-not-sorry kiss-off song, full of punchy relief and reveling in the satisfaction of moving on.
Watkins may be on an arduous journey, but there's room on that path for a little extra light. She affirms this notion on the gentle "Tenderhearted," a sweet ode to those who have been run through life's wringer but who arrive on the other side of their troubles without bitterness. The mid-tempo waltz is a sunny but measured conclusion to the record, a reminder of the value of warmth and kindness, as well as a warning against shutting off your heart from the world as a defense mechanism—"Nothing, when surrounded, survives but fear and doubt," Watkins sings.
Whether you're assessing a friendship, ending a longtime partnership, or even resetting your own life course, Young in All the Wrong Ways is a glue to help you put your pieces together. The truth might not set you free, but Watkins herself can help.
This article appeared in print with the headline "To Be Young."