Why should the fire die?
That’s the question Nickel Creek posed with the title of an album in 2005, after which the bluegrass trio ended a run that stretched back nearly two decades. The spark, as the members told it, wasn’t extinguished by any internal drama or creeping ill will; each simply wanted to play other kinds of music with other people. One answer to that question, then, seemed to be that sometimes the fire simply burns out.
But can it be relighted?
Nickel Creek argues yes, forcefully and often beautifully, on its gripping reunion effort, “A Dotted Line.” The record grew out of a handful of songwriting sessions that mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Sean Watkins and violinist Sara Watkins -- collaborators since their childhood days in San Diego -- came together for last year ahead of the band’s approaching 25th anniversary. They’d discussed a commemorative EP but decided to make a full album after things began encouragingly.
Yet if Nickel Creek’s new music took root in retrospection, it didn’t stay there. Fresh energy -- and fresh ideas -- course through “A Dotted Line,” which opens with a full-blooded folk-pop tune, “Rest of My Life,” that seems to acknowledge the ground left uncovered when the group went on hiatus.
“It’s one of those endings where no one claps ‘cause they’re sure that there’s more,” Thile sings as the Watkins siblings join him in tightly woven three-part harmony. “What a great way to start the first day of the rest of my life.”
Forward-looking as it is, “A Dotted Line” is clearly connected to the work each of the trio’s members has done since “Why Should the Fire Die?.” In “Elephant in the Corn,” for instance, Thile touches on the jagged textures of his experimental string band Punch Brothers.
The acoustic emo ditty “Christmas Eve” feels informed by Sean Watkins’ work with Jon Foreman (of the group Switchfoot) in Fiction Family. And there’s a galloping intensity to “Destination” that may derive from the time Sara Watkins spent with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, who produced her 2009 solo debut.
Mostly, though, these eight originals and two covers suggest that the unique chemistry between Thile and the Watkinses is still deepening. They’ve never blended their voices more thrillingly than they do on “Rest of My Life” or more tenderly than in their rendition of Sam Phillips’ “Where Is Love Now.”
They’re gorgeous too in “Love of Mine,” a philosophical examination of our tendency to romanticize romance. “21st of May,” apparently inspired by the late radio evangelist Harold Camping’s prophesy that the world would end on that day in 2011, shows off a slyly grown-up sense of humor.
Yet nothing reveals Nickel Creek’s renewed drive like “Hayloft,” its appealingly zany version of a song by the Canadian indie-rock band Mother Mother. Here, over a swaggering twang-funk groove -- is that a synth in the background? -- the trio sounds determined almost to make a break with its basis in tradition.
Given the group’s enduring popularity, “Hayloft” probably won’t burn any bridges. But you can hear the flames at work.