The best way to define one’s self — particularly laboring beneath a shadow as large as the Red Headed Stranger’s — is simply to go out and do. That’s been Lukas Nelson’s plan for the last decade, culminating in “Turn Off the News (Build a Garden),” his most polished and assured effort to date.
Since dropping out of Loyola Marymount in 2008, Willie’s progeny has built an impressive resume. Nelson and his longtime band, Promise of the Real, backed CCR’s John Fogerty and then Neil Young live, going on to record a live and two studio albums with Young. In 2017, their self-titled fourth album broke into the top ten on both the country and folk charts, and last year Nelson co-wrote and co-produced the Oscar-winning soundtrack to “A Star is Born” with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.
These efforts set the stage for an ambitious album that channels Nelson’s laidback, surfer-adjacent vibe through an eclectic range of styles deeply informed by the west coast country and folk of the ’60s and ’70s. Nelson’s sweet tenor, slightly grainy like a good whiskey, and the keen production hands of John Alagia (Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz) ensure it comes off without a hitch. A red carpet of guest stars lend their talents as well including Shooter Jennings, Sheryl Crow, Kesha, Margo Price, Young and dear old dad on the six-string.
The result finds a sweet spot between Jimmy Buffett’s lively, playful self-indulgence and the Band’s gentle homespun earnestness. Along the way Nelson showcases his sharpened songwriting instincts.
Nelson’s most striking effort comes halfway through the album, and risks being lost, were it not so immediately fetching. The loping folk trot “Mystery” (with Willie on guitar) is a bittersweet tune that acknowledges love’s unsteady terrain.
The younger Nelson’s plaintive protagonist notes his partner’s heavy heart, offering “I know you love me, but you still kinda need a mystery.” It’s messier than your typical pop song complication — how do you recreate surprise in an aging relationship — and it activates his own insecurities. “I’m gonna trust that sparkle in your eyes,” he sings. “And I won’t listen to the darkness in my mind.”
It’s not quite resolved, but that’s the best you can do sometimes, and that theme underlies many of the songs. The slow-burn bluesy sway of “Simple Life” echoes its message of letting go, as Nelson challenges his baby to “do a little less thinking, you don’t need to know the answers why.”
This free-living attitude is centerpieced by the album’s two strongest cuts, “Lotta Fun” and the title track, both bristling with Nelson’s pliant charm and his band’s crisp playing. The former is a greasy, country-fried amble, mildly evocative of Alabama Shakes if they lived in the weed-appropriate alternative to Margaritaville, aided by Price’s guest turn.
The latter is a village-building exercise that puts forth the idea that “every heart is kind, just some are underused” and that hatred is an outgrowth of “uneducated blues,” with the answer being to turn off the news and towards one’s neighbors. Lukas voice resembles his father more on this than any other track, channeling Willie’s tone of world-weary wisdom aching for a lost sense of community, melding nicely with Crow’s hearty vocals.
The disc’s deep well of strong tracks is testament to Nelson’s maturing abilities. The big bright tuneful opening track, “Bad Case,” revisits ringing ‘70s California folk behind some clever lyrics about a girl who has “the want but not the need.” Kesha lends vocals to the agile ‘50s pop of “Save a Little Heartache,” which overtly channels Roy Orbison in much the same manner as the Honeydrippers in the ’80s.
Less successfully, here’s also an Allmans-biting swamp funk jam, “Something Real” (which sadly sounds anything but), a misbegotten spacey-torch-psych experiment, “Stars Made of You,” and a funky rocker, “Out in L.A.,” that recalls Warren Zevon but doesn’t quite connect, even if all the pieces seem right.
The fact that these misses even merit mention for their ambition or scope speaks volumes to Nelson’s progress. He’s not passed from his father’s shadow, but rather found a vibe he can easily inhabit and is using it as a base to shoot rockets in every direction.
If some land in the sea, it’s no matter. When you’re on a mission of discovery you have to relax expectations enough not to plan where you land. Nelson’s approach could become even more expansive and perhaps more focused going forward as, having succeeded in this proof-of-concept, experiments transition from song-to-song explorations into album-by-album expeditions.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
“Turn Off the News (Build a Garden)”