This record is devoid of the style and personality that made Lucero great.
Lucero’s Ben Nichols has said that All a Man Should Do is the record he’s wanted to make since he was a teenager. If that’s the case, good on him. It’s good that, after all these years, he’s finally making the music he wants to make. For the rest of us who remember listening to Nobody’s Darlings, Dreaming in America and Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothersand thinking a band had come along with something new to say in punk, well, All a Man Should Doconfirms that that band is good and dead. Sure, they’d traded their punk infused country tunes for a more traditional Americana vibe years ago, but this new record lacks just about everything that made Lucero great. But hey, maybe a bunch of folks will hear this thing and think they’ve found a band with something new to say in sterilized alternative country music.
Nichols has always written about alcohol, women and Tennessee. Unsurprisingly, he has returned to those lyrical elements despite the inherent risks of rehashing well-worn themes. But there’s a larger issue to consider here: different versions of these songs have already been written. By Lucero. On their past couple blah records. And this time they lack personality, depth and anything resembling a fresh perspective.
On top of the music stripped of the stuff that gives it value, Nichols’ gravely smoker’s rasp also loses its power. In abandoning the punk/country mash-up his voice was suited for, many songs herein make him sound ridiculous in their want to resemble country music canon. In “Went Look for Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles,” specifically, the mixture of quiet, somber sounds with his vocal grit turns his voice into something resembling Dr. Teeth of Muppets fame as he sings watered down lyrics like “So long/ So long/ Going back to Memphis with a picture and a song/ So long/ So long/ Gonna find a juke box so everybody’ll sing along.” Clearly the lyrics don’t dazzle here, but this may be the least embarrassing set to use as an example of how far Lucero has fallen since imploding the foundations they laid years ago.
Listening to All a Man Should Be within the confines of the project’s context—which is already a chore—is actually made more difficult by the production value. Much of the music is lost beneath the pick-scratches on the acoustic guitar strings. The bass tone is barely more than a hum somewhere deep down in the mix. The additional instrumentation—the occasional saxophone—is tinny and whiny, adding little else than an annoying squeal in the distance. The most distracting aspect of the production comes from the drums. Played light and mixed low to make room for lackluster melodies, the drums sound as if they were recorded underwater. That sounds ridiculous, of course, but listen to “I Woke Up in New Orleans” and tell me the low rattle of the toms and kick aren’t flat enough to sound like a drowning man banging his fists on aquarium glass.
It would be unfair to say there’s nothing at all at least a little bit listenable on this record. “Throwback No. 2,” “They Called Her Killer” and “Young Outlaws” are okay. They offset the overwrought bummer of a mood the album sets by being a bit more upbeat. But working through the first five tracks to get to these is painful to say the least, and the last two songs take what little payoff these tracks offer by weighing them down in whiskey-soaked melodrama. Yeah, these songs are okay, but they’re not worth the work. And it’s not worth paying a full album’s cost for three tracks when you could cherry-pick them off iTunes for a third of the price. Even then, what’s the point? They’re not Lucero songs. They’re throwback revivalist country tunes by the band formerly known as Lucero.
If All a Man Should Do is a record Nichols and company have always wanted to make, it seems the only question that can be posed to them at this point is: why? This record is devoid of the style and personality that made Lucero great. It’s a record so weighed down by the downtrodden mood and retread lyrical tropes that it is a straight-up parody—not of their own music, no—of country music in general. It’s a record that can’t even serve as background music because it will bum out anyone in earshot. But, hey, if this is what Lucero has always supposed to have been, it seems they’ve succeeded. And if that really is the case, no one should have invested any time or money into the band in the first place.