The short version: As per usual, the technical showmanship of Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real is excellent, but their new album suffers from being a scatterbrained listen.
- Favorite tracks: “Out In L.A.,” “Something Real,” “Mystery,” “Stars Made Of You”
- Least favorite track: “Turn Off The News (Build A Garden)”
- Rating: 6/10
The long version: It’s hard not to address the elephant in the room when it comes to this review, so yes, Lukas Nelson is Willie Nelson’s son.
But when you actually look at Lukas’s career, you’ll see he’s never really had to live in that particular shadow. His band, Promise of the Real, has always been a pretty good southern rock band pulling from a ‘70s and ‘80s sound, and with increased exposure from working with Lady Gaga and appearing in A Star Is Born last year, he’s carved out his own niche.
Yet if you’re just getting into the band or hearing of them now, it might seem weird to think of them as a southern rock outfit. After all, their last album, 2017’s self-titled release, saw them veer into the same independent country and soul fusion that was popular at that time. Even though I personally enjoyed it (enough to where I’d name it one of the best albums of that year), I did understand the criticisms from fans who might not have totally been on board with the switch in style.
And it’s important to lay that context out on the line, as their new album, Turn Off The News (Build A Garden), is another album that sees the band branching out. The difference this time around is that it’s a largely scattershot effort with no real coherent theme surrounding it. Granted, that can still lead to some fantastic individual cuts, but as an entire effort, I can’t say I’m completely on board with this release.
And the hardest question is figuring out why exactly that is. For as wide-ranging as this album is, it usually pulls itself off well. The stabs at funk on “Save A Little Heartache” are executed well thanks to a good driving groove and solid bassline (the band also has an unusually good knack for interesting percussion lines), and while it’s bound to be the most polarizing track here, even the synthetic elements of “Stars Made Of You” make for a bright, acoustic leaning pop song.
I guess I just find myself wishing it stuck to a more coherent theme throughout, as while some cuts here are good individually, it doesn’t quite work as an entire album listen. For example, Nelson and the band do their best Roy Orbison impression on “Where Does Love Go” before venturing into the aforementioned funk rock of “Save A Little Heartache,” and it’s a bit jarring.
Granted, while Nelson has never quite cared about stardom, it’s hard not to see this album as his way of ushering in a new audience with an accessible listen where there’s something for everyone, especially with that aforementioned increased exposure.
But I’d also see myself liking this more if the writing was sharper, but it’s surprisingly fairly weak here for a Nelson album. And again, trying to pinpoint a coherent theme is fairly hard. Of course, there’s the title track which tries to lament against the dangers of keeping up with the news in a fairly hokey way (the garden metaphor is taken almost quite literally), a surprising move coming from a band that’s gone political on past songs. But Nelson’s method of finding peace is usually just … getting high, at least that’s what “Lotta Fun” and “Simple Life” have us believe, two tracks that go nowhere lyrically or musically.
So while the sentiment of that small theme is nice, it falters in its execution. But again, there are some fantastic individual cuts here, and the credit mostly goes to the production. The breezier, upbeat, lighter rock textures of “Bad Case” make for a fantastic opener with a catchy chorus, and by the time the album hits its midway point, it really starts to get interesting.
First, there’s “Mystery,” which plays well as a tender love song thanks to echoed acoustics, good percussion and warm pedal steel to accentuate the mix. Lyrically, this album plays things very basic and simple to an almost frustrating point, but this is one moment where that mystique is pulled off effectively.
What really grips me, though, is when the album leans into its scuzzier textures like on “Out In L.A.,” which, yes, does begin as a low-key country ballad. But by the time that two-and-a-half-minute mark kicks in, it turns into a fiery rocker with several great solos, and the song speeds up to the point where it’s a wild ride. And then that song leads into “Something Real,” a rerecorded version of the title track from Nelson’s 2016 album, only with an improved vocal cadence and a heavier reliance on blues rock textures. It’s a hard-charged track that’s got a tremendously good groove to it.
Even in terms of the guest stars here, Lucius, Shooter Jennings and Randy Houser all show up to sing backing vocals on “Civilized Hell,” and yet you couldn’t tell unless you actually looked up the credits for this album (like I did). Even Neil Young’s contribution on organ here is wasted on an acoustic version of the title track, which we really didn’t need. Weirdly enough, too, that comes before the actual album closer, “Consider It Heaven,” which tries to play to some more atmospheric textures, but feels too muted and cold to really deliver the intended vibe.
Again, in terms of pure technical showmanship, Nelson and the Promise of the Real are solid as always, and quite a few of these songs work individually. But as an album, outside of a decent run of songs every now and then, it doesn’t come together in quite the same way. Plus, for as wonderful of a lyricist as Nelson usually is, it’s telling that the best songs here mainly ride off of excellent instrumental textures or great grooves. It’s a decent listen for sure, but like with their last album, I wouldn’t be surprised if some found this too scatterbrained to work as a cohesive unit.