Hot on the heels of reviewing Justin Townes Earle’s latest masterpiece I find myself tasked with reviewing yet another release from a talented son of a legendary artist. This time I am tackling the latest offering from Lukas Nelson (son of Willie) & Promise of the Real, Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) on Fantasy Records. I was turned on to Lukas years ago by my father who uncharacteristically purchased his four or five song EP after seeing him open a Willie show. Dad had seen Willie numerous times since the 70s and this time I felt he was more excited about Lukas than he was about the headliner. I was excited to hear the new music especially since Nelson’s star has been on the rise over the past few years. With Academy and BAFTA awards, the backing by Neil Young and his father aside, this album stands on its own merits without having to pander to famous friends (even though a few show up for the party) and relatives (they show up too) to make its mark.
Produced by Nelson, the band, and John Alagia, from the first note it crackles with an energy that is hard to contain. “Bad Case” is the perfect opener with the lap steel coursing throughout and a strong, confident vocal delivery just to keep things interesting. If California had to be bottled as a four minute and thirty-nine second song I think it might sound like this. I love Alagia’s contribution on 12 string, bringing the shimmery trippy feel towards the end of the cut. A fantastic opening salvo, I must have listened and relistened to “Bad Case” at least six times before moving forward. Title track “Turn Off the News (Build a Garden)” features Sheryl Crow on backing vocals and she compliments Nelson’s Pettyesque vocals perfectly. A much needed reminder to tune out the negative and focus on the positive, it hits all the right chords musically and philosophically. “Where Does Love Go” is so steeped in the sound of the Traveling Wilburys that I checked the credits just to make sure it wasn’t an outtake from those historic recording sessions. It’s not and it unabashedly wears the stylings of George Harrison and Jeff Lynne on its sleeve. The singings and lyrics however, are 100% reminiscent of the best works by Roy Orbison. Soaring vocals play wonderfully with the lush melodies and instrumentation. This was an unexpected and stunningly beautiful moment and really served to highlight Nelson’s reverence for what has come before him without allowing himself to wallow in the past. “Civilized Hell” finds Nelson singing in a lower register and not pushing his voice higher. Laid back, it is right at home with the Allman Brothers guitar sound that flows consistently throughout. Musically it is one of the strongest offerings on the album. And then just as it gets really moving Willie joins in on vocals with Shooter Jennings on backing vocals! “Mystery” is a damn near perfect love song and the mournful steel guitar that weaves in and out is a perfect accompaniment to Nelson’s strongest vocal moment. By the way, that is Willie adding his unique guitar stylings just for good measure.
“Simple Life” continues the relaxed, mystery of life theme that runs through Turn Off the News (Build a Garden). I can hear it easily weaving in and out of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What its Worth” especially when the band starts to jam out at the midway point. I can only imagine how they will stretch this out on stage, should be epic. “Out In LA” starts off slow and deliberate but at the 2:20 mark it combusts into a full band jam. Pounding drums, searing guitar work push it along at a break neck pace. If you want to hear a band firing on all cylinders, then listen up because this is that moment. “Stars Made of You” starts out like an old disco song. Full of quick rhythm and orchestral backing it does not mesh or compliment any of the previous ten tracks. That being said it is pure fun, with heartfelt lyrics plus it comes across as a statement that Nelson and company will write and perform whatever they damn well please. I absolutely love everything about it and I am beyond pleased that it was included. To round out the collection you will find an acoustic version of the title song complete with Neil Young on pump organ which makes for an enjoyable listen. “Consider it Heaven” is a fantastic closer and I felt like you could really hear a little of his father in his voice. A true standout amongst an album full of amazing moments, multi-instrumentalist Jess Siebenberg brings lap steel and pump organ to the mix and leaves us wanting just a little bit more.
This is not a country album. It is an exploration of multiple, intermixed genres and it stands on its own merits. I dare you to categorize it. Nelson and his band make it seem effortless and it is clear why he is such an in demand collaborator. Steel sharpens steel and this five man crew is at a razor sharp level. I listen to a work like this and all I can think of is “what are they going to do next” and selfishly “how long do I have to wait for the next batch of new songs”? We, as listeners, have been blessed by an embarrassment of riches when it comes to stellar releases in 2019 but I do not feel at all hesitant to say that Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real may have just delivered the best record we will see this year. http://lukasnelson.com