Album Review

Lucero Goes Literary

Lucero - Among The Ghosts

On their ninth studio album, rock/alt-country quintet Lucero decided that instead of recording stories, they needed to engage them. Among the Ghosts departs from the familiar Memphis style of their earlier arrangements – the blaring bluesy horns and blues-infused riffs – in search of a deeper, more intensely introspective approach rooted in the evocative nature of prose.  

Gone are the boogie-woogie piano bars and the Memphis-centric sound of the past; in its place is an entertaining curiosity that is worth a close listen – for its simplicity, its wide-eyed wonder, its inspired way of choosing and combining vignettes, its unwavering pride in the inspiration of literature. 

Indeed, as an alternative to choosing something that they were already capable to do, Lucero picked something that they felt like they were made to do, a departure from all previous designs. Co-produced and engineered by Grammy Award-winner Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Drive-by Truckers), Among the Ghosts includes the original recording of "Loving," written and recorded by lead singer Ben Nichols for his brother Jeff Nichols' film of the same title, as well as Back To The Night, a radically different spoken word interlude by actor Michael Shannon (Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actor for his roles in Revolutionary Road and Nocturnal Animal). While Lucero’s last few albums contained an overabundance of pre-production, demos, rehearsals, and mixing, Among the Ghosts reveals the band’s newest version of itself: looser, a little rougher around the edges, delving into the pantheon of classic rock and roll.

Among the Ghosts was recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, Tennessee, which allowed the band to soak up the great musical history of Memphis while discovering a fresh perspective through self-examination of their thick roots. The rich atmospheric vibe of the album sharply departs from the quintet’s most recent few; Among the Ghosts harbors a dark, cinematic quality, as if the songs were approached as individual scenes in an epic movie, radiating an open, moody quality. Indeed, the songs capture the essence of the short story writer, shunning the autobiographical nature of much of Lucero’s previous labor in favor of a special form of voyeuristic storytelling. It’s a reminder that music searches for us, no matter what dark place we’re in or what door we’re behind.

The album is tightly anchored by straightforward and at times melancholy and serious lyrics, ten new songs steeped in evocatively Southern-tinged descriptions. Among the Ghosts highlights Nichols’ literary-influenced episodes drawn from several contemporary short story writers, including South Carolina-born essayist and poet Ron Rash. Nichols employs lines from authors that he has admired and inserts a few new verses, inspired from some other favorites. He borrowed, re-arranged, transferred, and created verses with a craftsman’s precision, juxtaposing his own spontaneous expressions with other sentences, phrases, and words inspired from a slew of origins. ("My Dearest Wife" is pulled from the opening declaration of a Civil War-era letter that caught his eye.)  

While previous works were primarily autobiographical, Among the Ghosts finds Nichols asserting the role of narrative storyteller, and musically, the band digs in tightly with the unadulterated rock-and-roll vibe that guided their earliest years. Nichols and bandmates Brian Venable (guitar), Roy Berry (drums), John C. Stubblefield (bass), and Rick Steff (keyboards) have concocted music with a special spirit, a clear indicator that even after two decades Lucero still has many years of hard traveling and trial and research ahead.