Heartstrings Interview New Release Review

ALBUM REVIEW: Sean Watkins’ ‘What To Fear’

By Trevor Christian, WUSB

It’s not often a song comes out that seems truly suited for the moment. The societal issue of fear mongering Sean Watkins addresses in the title track of What To Fear, may be age-old, but it seemed like the mania reached an impressive high last month when the album was released into a world with Donald Trump, ISIS and the Zika virus.

In an interview for WUSB, Watkins explained he’s noticed since he was a kid the way headlines and teasers have used fear to sell people the product of the news. The song is written from the point of view of a television newsman, though plenty of the words could be applied to certain politicians and churches, not to mention the folks selling dehydrated bunker food with a shelf life of 25 years. The video for the song, a minimalist production featuring Watkins, a flashlight and screenshots of questionable news headlines, is set in front of a campfire. The comparison between the ridiculous scary stories told at campsites and their counterparts in mass media is humorous even if the fact it’s so true might actually be pretty horrifying.

Watkins also explained that the lead single, “Keep Your Promises II,” was in fact the original version of the tune he released on his last album, All I Do Is Lie. He had rearranged some lyrics after Gillian Welch challenged him to incorporate an old fiddle tune into a song. That iteration felt heavy and bitter as he urged his lover to keep her meaningless promises — to herself. The update keeps that play on words alive but in a way that suggests he believes relationships can be reciprocated and fulfilling without any promises of forever. He still sounds cynical, but the bitterness is replaced by a fear of ruining something that’s already making him feel happy but overwhelmed. “Everything,” which immediately follows, is expertly performed and appropriately placed. The verses detail Watkins’ reluctance to fully trust someone while the refrain, which is so softly spoken, assures his partner that he’s willing to try to.

The words “I will give everything to you” sound believable because they’re weighed down by an appropriate amount of fear and seriousness.

Regret plays a role in this album too. In “Too Little Too Late,” Watkins apologizes to an ex not because he wanted her back, but because he was afraid his harsh words may have changed her when he was the one who was wrong. “Last Time For Everything” ranks among the highlights of Watkins’ career by pairing detailed and carefully worded looks at past mistakes with the reassuring sentiment of ‘never again’ expressed on the refrain. He somehow comes across as relatable and likable even when admitting to driving drunk. “Where You Were Living” stands out primarily for the bluegrass guitar playing, but also for sounding a lot like something Watkins would say to himself when he was younger, home schooled and cut off from the world.

There may not be a poorly written song on the album, but there is one I prefer to skip when casually listening. As I explained to Watkins after his album release show, “I Am What You Want,” a track written from the perspective of a potentially violent stalker, may have been a bit too well done for comfort. Based on the way Watkins laughed, it’s safe to say he wasn’t offended.

Two covers close What to Fear and both make perfect sense for Watkins and the album. “Tribulations” is an early 20th century song that almost joyfully warns of the coming apocalypse. The somewhat creepy disconnect between the melody and lyrics, emphasizes a point made in the title track: the folks telling scary stories seem the least worried by them. The closing track, the Glen Phillips number “Back On My Feet,” adds an optimistic balance to an often tense record. A conventionally happy song here would feel out of place, but “Back On My Feet” acknowledges hardships while focusing on what good still may come. It pairs nicely with some of the reflective tracks and argues against the album’s villains. By choosing this song to close What To Fear, Watkins seems to be denying the link between acknowledging hardships and mistakes and accepting a grim future. Similarly, Watkins’ solo career seems ready to gain its footing after his most consistent release to date.


Trevor Christian is the host of Country Pocket on WUSB. The show airs at 1pm on Thursdays on 90.1 FM on Long Island and www.wusb.fm worldwide. A recording of the most recent episode can be heard by clicking the show’s speaker icon at www.wusb.fm/station/schedule/week.

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