Lucero In Retrospect – A Broadview
With Lucero soon to release a rumored epic length album of live material, it seemed like a good time to do a level-set on the boys from Memphis.
I’ve been listening to Lucero for only about 18 months now, so my start as a fan was after 8 LPs were released. Arriving late is like coming down the stairs on Christmas morning to find more presents than you could possibly get your arms around. You stumble upon a deep pool of music to wade through, sort out and fall in love with. Initially, you don’t follow albums as much as you find tracks that lead you in different directions, and certainly in no particular order. You’re playing catch-up.
The falling in love part is the easy — the songs are instantly relatable and familiar even though you’ve never really heard this sound before. You’re already in before you can digest and make sense of it. What may be harder to come by is perspective on and context to a massive library of great music.
The words you always hear about Lucero are “progression” and “evolution,” but too often they seem like code for ‘added a horn section.’ Anybody can put a Women & Work song next to an Attic Tapes song and realize that something happened. That was my first show in a nutshell.
I had only heard the Self-Titled album when I decided that I needed to see these guys live, and they just happened to be coming through Providence, RI on the Women & Work tour. So I went to check them out and I sure was confused when I heard Downtown and Women & Work. They obviously played a couple that I knew, and some others that sounded like what I came for, but I left there a bit not sure what to think. Of course that was just the start of my journey.
What I came to appreciate more and more is that there is a real progression in the music that is much deeper than just adding horns, and when you pay attention you can see it happening. It’s a progression of real people in real life, finding their way through the same types of experiences you’ve had, and growing better and better at their craft with each release.
Each album is fantastic in its own right. However, they naturally group into pairs that walk through the different phases of growth both in experience and in music.
Attic Tapes and Lucero (Self-Titled)
These are slow, dark songs that represent an accumulation of experiences in a young person’s life. The writing is brilliant and the themes repeat themselves throughout all of the albums, but here they feel like new experiences played over a no frills style. For most of these, you get the two guitars, bass and drums along with a violin that pulls back and forth like a razorblade across the measured rainy-day sounds. Think of songs like ‘Into Your Eyes’, ‘Dangerous Thing’, ‘Wasted’, ‘So Long Tonight’, and the masterpiece, ‘No Roses No More’. You’re young, running around and having fun; highs and lows; trying to avoid being tied down.
Tennessee and That Much Further West
On the very first note off Tennessee, which is ‘Sweet Little Thing’, you can feel that we’ve taken a step up in quality — both as musicians and in the topics. Musically the songs feel more full and rounded than before. There’s a bit more responsibility creeping into the lyrics. You begin to hear more about the life on the road and the challenge of trying to chase your calling, but being human and dealing with the things that have been left behind and the things you may be screwing up right now. Think of songs like ‘The Last Song’, ‘When You’re Gone’, ‘Across the River’, and ‘Coming Home’. The band is feeling torn between these obligations, but hopeful and moving forward. You also have songs like ‘Darby’s Song’ and ‘When You Decided to Leave’ which are coming to terms with love and responsibility; things which might seem out of place in the last couple albums.
Nobody’s Darlings and Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers
Nothing quite gets your attention like a punch in the face and that’s what you get here. If Tennessee and That Much Further West are pleasing sounds and showing signs of wisdom that comes with maturity, then Nobody’s Darlings and Rebels/Rogues are the counterpunch to that. These albums are musically more confident that the last ones, but the songs have a hard edge and are rebelling against growing up a bit. ‘Anjalee’, ‘Watch It Burn’, ‘California’, ‘Last Night in Town’. You can also hear the competing worlds tugging even harder in different directions. Grow up or stay young, and stay young is winning for now. When you’re deep into Rebels, you feel almost as if they are sliding towards a disaster. Take the messages in ‘What Else Would You Have Me Be’ (You were fine with me being an F-up when we met, so what’s the problem now?), ‘1979’ (years so fast it’s all the same), ‘Sing Me No Hymns’ (sounds like a conversation at an intervention), and ‘It’s on the Way Back Home’ (one of two choices – mine is to drink in a different town nearly every night). Signs poke through that hint at a future you have to accept – these are a much more prominent use of piano and organ and the addition of Rick Steff. Still, you get the sense that this can’t possibly end well.
1372 Overton Park and Women & Work
The break between Rebels/Rogues and Overton Park is the longest between albums to that point, and for me it is about a death and a rebirth. The musical build-up to start Overton Park sounds like you’re picking yourself off the ground, gaining your feet and finding your stride – the song is ‘Smoke’. 1372 is downright melodic even when it’s hard, and Women & Work feels like you’ve reached a comfortable clarity. All the pieces are in place — the original 4 plus Rick, the pedal steel, and the horns. The music is unapologetically beautiful. Think of the sounds and messages in ‘Hey Darlin’ Do You Gamble’, ‘Goodbye Again’, ‘Sometimes’, ‘Go Easy’, ‘It May Be Too Late’, ‘When I Was Young’. In many ways, these songs are on the other end of the spectrum from the guy in ‘No Roses No More’. The boy with the most metal heart of all in ‘Across the River’ became the man in ‘Darken My Door’.
Putting these into context doesn’t make me appreciate any of them less, but it helps to understand how the kids who gave us ‘My Best Girl’ could possibly have come up with ‘Go Easy’.
So where do we go from here? Will it be a collection of softer love songs to pair with the Texas & Tennessee EP? Maybe it will be some sort of post-passion guilt ridden decline or a disastrous, flaming car crash end to a relationship? There’s no way to know, as it can’t be written before it has been experienced.
The one thing that we do know is that it will be authentic – the real deal. And I can’t wait to hear it.
About the author: Tom is the founder of The “REAL Lucero” Fan Group, an unofficial group of crazy fans. https://www.facebook.com/groups/lucero.memphis/