EDITOR’S NOTE: As album releases slow down in December, we like to catch our breath and write about albums that came out earlier in the year that we didn’t get a chance to review but we think are worthy of your attention. Alive in the Hot Zone was released in October.
Austin Lucas is one of our most uncompromising songwriters. His latest album, Alive in the Hot Zone, finds the troubadour honing his lyrics into a weapon. In this go-around, Lucas focuses on self-exploration, love, youth, and the wretched state of the world with unflinching clarity: a masterclass on well-trodden themes.
This year, Lucas has had a unique vantage point. Europe’s lockdowns were announced when Lucas was visiting his partner in Germany, and it was soon apparent that it would be much better to ride out the global pandemic anywhere but the US, so he witnessed a pandemic spring and a summer of civil rights uprisings from afar. As most Americana singer-songwriters struggled to come to terms with what was happening around them, Lucas’ literal distance allowed him an almost cold precision that made Alive in the Hot Zone one of the best documents of this distinctive year.
While Lucas was never a stranger to discussing his proudly anti-fascist stance on his social media posts, songs like “Already Dead,” documenting a conversation with a Trump-supporting loved one, are the most direct he’s ever been in song. Like so many others, Lucas found himself in the position of cutting people out of his life after years of dialogue about the harmful impact of four years of would-be authoritarians in the White House — and the centuries of hatred that led us to this moment. “American Pyre,” with its casual comparison of lockdown in America to “New Palestine,” is one of the more experimental songs on the record, a sinewy composition that is both irreverent and tragic.
Lucas is no less sparing when he turns the lens on himself. “Middle Years” is simultaneously a celebration of the hard lessons he has learned through experience, nostalgia for the punk scenes he came up in, and a condemnation of the violence against women in those spaces that he ignored.
There’s space for liberation, too. “Drive” is Lucas’s anthem for the LGBTQ+ community. Lucas is pansexual, and came out to his fans with the release of this record. “Anyone” is an arresting dirge that mourns decades spent feeling lonely and hopeless and reclaims the time now to love himself. Meanwhile, “Shaking” is a jumpy anthem reminiscent of Lucas’ compatriot and collaborator Joey Kneiser’s jangly punk rock. The song gives us a path to putting destructive and toxic aspects of ourselves to rest.
Most of us have spent 2020 getting better acquainted with ourselves, gaining a deeper understanding of our identities, our ideals, our relationships, how we use the time we’ve been given, and what we owe to each other. Alive in the Hot Zone insists that we never stop those explorations, whether or not we can safely leave the house.