Does anyone remember laughter? What of those souls who never knew it to begin with? These are questions scribbled in the margins of Among the Ghosts, the ninth album from venerable Memphis outfit Lucero.

The story this time is that the band has set aside the horn-driven stylings of past releases as well as the Jerry Lee Lewis-like piano figures. Cutting the new collection largely live as a five-piece in the studio, the group aimed for something more subtle and, often, rawer. If the signature sounds of Memphis aren’t central to the record, the streets and stories of the fabled city are.

Vocalist Ben Nichols took cues from his younger brother, filmmaker Jeff Nichols, and chosen to focus on elements of the southern gothic tradition with tales of a haunting (the chilling title track), a gunfight (“Cover Me”) and a letter from the battlefield (“To My Dearest Wife”). Frequently, there’s little sense that the darkness will relent and the dour, Robbie Robertson-esque “Back To the Night” casts a funereal pall over the disc before the group kicks back into the rock ‘n’ roll many of its fans will crave via the closing “For the Lonely Ones.”

That weightiness isn’t entirely a detraction. There’s something about meditating on one’s own broken heart via the divorce-inspired “Always Been You” that makes it feel like catharsis. Still, tales of drowning (“Bottom of the Sea”) and doing battle with the devil (“Everything Has Changed”) begin to feel like weights around the ankles, a sense that the listener isn’t coming to the record so much for healing as to be anesthetized.

That’s unfortunate. Traveling through the darkness can be a rewarding experience for artist and audience alike, a journey that sees both emerging once more under stars, the worst of their trials behind them. Here, even the guitar lines and drum beats feel like thuds against the rise of humanity, achy and unquenchable. The 10 songs feel like much more, and that’s not always a good thing.

Yet the album has its merits. Nichols and his compatriots can still build rhythms as sturdy as ancient buildings, and even when the words become a slog, we often feel the need to raise our hands in solidarity or let our feet move to the rhythms. Maybe it’s the absence of those horns and not enough rip-roaring keyboard work that makes this feel so absent of celebration.

It’s not the worst album Lucero could have created, and longtime fans will pick and parse their way through, finding much to love, including the succinct brilliance of Nichols’ lyrics. For the rest of us, Among the Ghosts is probably best taken in small doses, as that seems to be the way to best find the joy in the music and a way to exist with such a heavy load on our shoulders. It’s ironic that so much darkness should emanate from a band whose name means “Shining Star” or “Morning Star” in Spanish. If you’re looking for the rewarding bummer album of 2018, this is probably it.

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