Album Review: Lucero – ‘When You Found Me’

Lucero becomes completely unhinged on When You Found Me, and that’s part of the album’s appeal.

Preamble

I owe my love of Lucero to my former Macroeconomics professor.

Honestly, I wish I had more to add to the story than that. I mean, I don’t completely remember how it happened – an office hours session somehow led to me to find out he was a big fan of jazz and a small fan of alternative country, to which I remember telling him I wrote for a country music website (back in my This is Country Music days), to him then asking me if I had ever heard of some band called “loose-arrow.” Now, I credit 2015 as a huge changing point for my personal tastes, preferences and discoveries within country music, and alongside a recommendation to watch Squidbillies, I was also told to hear Tennessee, the band’s sophomore release. I also remember being told not to delve too deeply into the band’s later work. “I don’t like the horns” is a statement I do remember, if only for the irony behind it.

Really, though, Lucero is the sort of cult favorite band that can inspire that sense of mystique and magnetism with their work, plainly inspired by early alternative country pioneers, but also unique and large enough to inspire modern-day acts themselves. Tennessee is the best starting point, if only for “Nights Like These” (though I vibe a bit more with “Here at the Starlite” myself), but 2003’s That Much Further West is the next logical step and remains an all-time favorite of mine since that discovery. It’s fitting, then, that the first album I covered of theirs was 2018’s Among the Ghosts, even if I wasn’t as wowed by the supposed return to form as other critics were. Maybe it’s because, at its core, the band hasn’t strayed much from its working formula: solid hooks, a blustering presentation behind Ben Nichols’ whiskey-soaked growl and the rough-edged instrumentation that still carries that heft even when it gets gloomy, and a songwriting perspective that’s cemented him as one of the best writers working today. As such, I went against my former professor’s suggestion and leaned into those later albums, and upon hearing that their newest album, When You Found Me, was cribbing from classic rock influences, I was onboard – especially with lead single “Outrun the Moon.”

Lucero when you found me

The Review

To reference my preamble, if there’s another example of Lucero pivoting toward something slightly different and it alienating certain core fans and critics, it’s definitely this album. And for the most part, I get it. It’s campy, it’s overindulgent, it’s lacking a tight focus, it’s got the grooves and hooks but isn’t really melodic, and Ben Nichols doesn’t possess the huge range to make up for it. Yet for as much as I initially understood those criticisms, with every repeat listen I found its unhinged nature to be part of the appeal – an accidental success, if you will.

But you know, that’s also not fair, because while When You Found Me does feel like a one-off experiment or transitional project, there’s a definitive core both sonically and lyrically that makes it work in spite of its messiness. It might not be one of the band’s all-time best efforts, but I got way more into this than I thought I would.

Of course, that begs the question of what a classic rock project from Lucero would sound like, and the answer is: ‘80s-inspired, especially with the whirring synthesizers that evoke all of those cheesy sci-fi movie soundtracks. Yet this isn’t looking to conjure those, and, outside of “Back in Ohio,” which is an awesome blast of riotous energy that doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the project, it isn’t conjuring Bruce Springsteen either. No, the weird comparison I’d have to make is to the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine – it’s wildly overblown to the point of being self-aware enough to have fun with it and lean into its mayhem, but also carries a far darker subtext that will likely get ignored (and already has). This is nightmare fuel in a way the band has never been able to convey with the same sort of sobering conviction before, where the soundtrack is able to balance out these tonal choices phenomally well, especially in some gorgeously mixed piano tones on the weathered edges driving “Coffin Nails.” Which is also to say that, outside of “Good as Gone,” this album isn’t aiming for pulsating grooves to drive its message home. No, if anything, we get continuous stabs of organ on the hook of “Outrun the Moon” to remind us of a nightmare that won’t end, further amplified on “Good as Gone,” which, again, is just awesome. And while it’s always been hard to find a good talking point for Nichols’ vocals, here he’s leaning into the fiendish demeanor meant to haunt this album, and he’s handling it phenomenally well. I even liked the low, curdled growl he brought to “A City on Fire,” which, with that clash of thumping drums and buzzy guitars toward its end, shouldn’t work as well as it does.

Granted, there are also moments that get a bit too overindulgent. Outside of a pretty nice guitar solo, the reverb-saturated “Pull Me Close Don’t Let Go” scanned as a bit too generic and on-the-nose in its callbacks to the time period to even make it onto Miami Vice. And I didn’t find that balance to shine through as well on “All My Life,” which has the production heft and bite needed to fit the album, but doesn’t really need it for a track celebrating finding love. If anything, the lonesome echo driving the title track makes those other two tracks completely unnecessary here.

But again, that inconsistency is also part of the point. It’s wild and off-the-walls with its energy, and though I would argue it’s not that much of a stretch outside of the band’s comfort zone, it is a stretch in its actual presentation and delivery. Of course, that’s led to the obvious criticism that it all doesn’t connect too well, and here’s where I’m not surprised that most critics can’t bother to pick up basic text, subtext, or a thematic arc anymore. Because, this album? It’s diving headfirst into subjects of abuse that never feel like they’re being exploited for pure showmanship. If anything, you need this soundtrack to properly sketch that demon hanging around just waiting to pounce. It’s also probably better that the album sketches its main themes through metaphors and motifs, otherwise “The Match” just sounds like an acid trip gone really bad.

So it starts with “Have You Lost Your Way?,” alluding to an evil demon haunting a young woman that “came for her parents,” only, in the form of an abusive stepfather on “Outrun the Moon” who haunts her to the point of never being able to actually start her life, causing her to grapple with that on “Good as Gone” and take action, arguably more on “A City on Fire” than “The Match,” because that ending is a bit of a letdown and “A City on Fire” alludes to erasing him for good. Granted, I also understand I may be relying a bit too much on subtext to weave that story together, but the thematic undercurrent is there, and it makes for a listen that can feel simultaneously thrilling and scary. And I’m also the person who appreciates “Back in Ohio,” even if the deeper meaning is beyond me and it adds an energy that the album doesn’t lack so much as doesn’t strive for, which is why, for as much as I like it, I’d say it belongs more on, say, 1372 Overton Park.

Ultimately, though, When You Found Me is the sort of album I had to wrap my head around before I properly understood it, never quite nailing a completely consistent lane or focus, but never needing to when the chances taken stick the landing as well and as often as they do. Again, I won’t call it one of the band’s absolute best, and I get why others have shrugged this off as an experiment gone wrong. But I also reveled in that darkness probably far more than I should have, and on thematic cohesion and its purely hellish framework alone, it’s a different side of the same coin for Lucero – one we’ve never gotten to experience quite like this.

(Decent to strong 8/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “Coffin Nails,” “Good as Gone,” “A City on Fire,” “Outrun the Moon,” “The Match”
  • Least favorite track: “Hold Me Close Don’t Let Go”

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