There's a new brand of intensity burning on Lucero's new album, Among the Ghosts. It marks as the Memphis country-punk rockers' ninth studio album and caps off their 20th anniversary as a pioneering force within the realms of early alt-country and modern Americana. It finds the five-piece Lucero pushing further into darker territory with a stripped back pace that relies heavily on the space in between the notes. There's a stark tint that permeates Among the Ghosts with a cinematic glow that feels as though each song is a short film unto itself.
"Over the years, we filled those spaces in--for better or worse," Ben Nichols tells Wide Open Country. "It feels like this record is an answer to the last three albums. They were very dense and very Memphis-centric."
Those three albums--1372 Overton Park, Women & Work and All a Man Should Do--were defined by Jerry Lee Lewis-style boogie-woogie piano and punches of Stax-styled horn sections. And of course, Lucero's blue-collar grit, gripping dive bar anthems, drunken lonesomeness and a waxing Memphis soulfulness. Where those albums showed off Lucero's growing aspirations and keen attention to detail, Among the Ghosts finds Nichols and company chasing a very different kind of depth and weight.
Recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, Lucero worked with engineer and co-producer Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Drive-By Truckers) for the better part a year in three or four-day spurts. Ross-Spang, as characterized by Nichols, "a fellow Memphis kid," brought in a slowed-down pace and mellow atmosphere that permeates the albums slow-burn feel.
"It was a more natural way to record a record," says Nichols of the handful of recording sessions. "We'd load everything in onto the floor in Sam Phillips. He'd get the microphones in place and we'd just start playing. There wasn't any preproduction. We'd just start playing. Some stuff worked, some didn't. But we let that guide the process."
Nichols--along with guitarist Brian Venable, bassist John C. Stubblefield, drummer Roy Berry and keyboardist Rick Steff--allowed Among the Ghosts to be comfortable with itself. Undoubtedly, songs such as the piercing rocker "Cover Me" and the Southern Springsteen barroom stomping "For the Lonely Ones" harken back to iconic battle-tested Lucero fundamentals --like driving guitar riffs and Nichols noteworthy rasp. Some things just never change (and in some cases, why should they?)
But it's in atmosphere and space where Lucero's sound has grown and expanded the most. Nichols, who's an avid fan of film scores, wanted to incorporate more of those cinematic soundscapes, saying that he wanted songs to "bring up visuals and imagery even without lyrics."
An ethereal quality is found songs like "Bottom Of The Sea," "Always Been You" and show-stopping "Back To The Night," which features an intense spoken word cameo from actor Michael Shannon. Songs are swept with the echo of haunting guitars that ring out and linger with an idling fog. Meanwhile, serene piano and organ often set the mood with an unwavering yield.
"We were able to ease back a notch and let the songs be the songs and let the band be the band," says Nichols.
Nichols, who says he's been "autobiographical to a fault" in the past, was heavily influenced and inspired by short story writers such as Larry Brown, Ron Rash and Tim O'Brien (in particular, The Things They Carried). In addition, Nichols says his younger brother, film director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Loving, Mud) was a huge motivator.
"Those guys, they really have good detail in their stories," says Nichols. "It's something that I wanted to capture. I think Jeff's done a really great job at doing that as well. I was going for a storytelling approach. There's something to be said about approaching songwriting more like a craft."
Songs like "To My Dearest Wife" and "Loving," originally written for Jeff's film by the same name, have an old-world sense and timelessness to them. Their sparse arrangements feel like sand trickling out of an hourglass making way for Nichols' steady storytelling.
"Another night full of heartache. They just don't want to let us be," sings Nichols on "Loving." There's a rising tension that's delicate and beautiful. You feel an earnest, direct and honest love in Nichols' delivery. It evokes an immeasurable emotional response while never being short on detail.
"I know. It's only rock and roll. It's just a record. But it's dealing with stuff," says Nichols. It's about real life. There's a life experience on this record. There's a maturity to it. Maybe there's a place for some of that seriousness thought."
Still, even though Nichols has continually branched out as a storyteller with new perspectives and thoughts, he's still highly influenced by life at home and his own experiences. Nichols, who got married two years ago and had a daughter, says he was first worried that having a family would somehow limit his writing, but that it's had the opposite effect, saying that it's "opened up a whole world to draw from."
"This heartbreak is a whole new kind of heartbreak," says Nichols. "Leaving a girlfriend behind at home while you're out on the road is one thing. A baby daughter is a whole new kind of pain."
"The first word she said to me was goodbye," sings Nichols on the opening track "Among the Ghosts." It hits you like a punch to the gut when you realize he's speaking about his young daughter, Izzy. Still, there's a beauty within that goes beyond that first layer of listening. It's an incredibly sobering moment right out the gates.
"You have something to lose. There's a whole new anxiety and fear that comes along with having a family," says Nichols. "I'm happier than I've ever been--but I'm terrified. It's a feeling I've never felt before. I have something to fight for. I have something to lose."
Even while Among the Ghosts often delves into the darkness finding some mounting tension or tribulation, Nichols finds strength in songs like standouts like the aforementioned "Among the Ghosts" and the American Civil War letters inspired "To My Dearest Wife." Nichols elegantly captures that nervousness on the eve of a battle. It's in those precious moments that has him remembering his wife and children that cuts through the fog of war. Still, it's universal enough that it can be applied to anyone's struggles and battles in life.
"Every night that I sing 'To My Dearest Wife,' I feel stronger," says Nichols "It helps me through those long nights. It's important to have songs that you can lean on."
That Southern Gothic storytelling mentality, stirred by the swirls of mood-setting cinematic tones captured by Ross-Spang and the band, find Lucero delivering its' most complete and serious statements to date. Though it's not marked by diary-entry confessionals or as many anthemic dive bar charges, Lucero's Among the Ghosts is as striking as the band has ever been. It's still a heartfelt journey rich with honesty, melancholy tones and Nichols keen observations. That progression is invaluable.
"I think it lifts out of that darkness," says Nichols. "It doesn't lead you into a dark abyss. It gives you a door at the end. There's a light at the end of the tunnel."
Among the Ghosts is officially due out August 3 via Liberty & Lament and Thirty Tigers.
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