Lucero's ninth studio album, Among the Ghosts, was recorded and co-produced with Grammy-winning engineer/producer Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Drive by Truckers) at the historic Sam Phillips Recording Service, the studio built by the legendary producer after outgrowing his Memphis Recording Service/Sun Studio. Captured primarily live, it eschews the Stax-inspired horns and Jerry Lee Lewis-style boogie piano featured on some of the band's past recordings for a streamlined rock & roll sound that pays homage to their seminal influences as it seeks to push that legacy into the future. For a band who carried the torch of the alt-country movement back in the 90's and helped pave the way for what is now called Americana, Lucero have re-discovered what inspired them in the first place. The sound is more their own and at the same time not exactly like anything they've done before. This is a band settling into their craft.
The ten-song LP's title is both a tribute to the spirits which roam the streets of their fabled city of Memphis, as well as the hard road the determinedly independent band set out on 20 years ago. With a nod to his younger brother Jeff Nichols, an acclaimed filmmaker whose movies include Loving, Mud, Take Shelter, Midnight Special, and Shotgun Stories; Ben Nichols has written songs that are cinematic short stories, steeped in Southern gothic lore. There are nods to regional authors like Flannery O'Connor and Faulkner, as well as newer writers like Larry Brown (Big Bad Love, Fay), Ron Rash (The Cove, The World Made Straight), and William Gay (The Long Home). As the first album he's written since his marriage and the birth of his daughter, Nichols approached the task as a narrator rather than in first person.
It's a dark palette that includes tales of a haunting ("Among the Ghosts"), a drowning ("Bottom of the Sea), a reckoning with the devil ("Everything has Changed"), a divorce ("Always Been You"), and a shoot out ("Cover Me"). And that's just Side A. Side B is a letter from a battlefield ("To My Dearest Wife"), a crime ("Long Way Back Home"), a straight-out rocker ("For the Lonely Ones") and even a spooky spoken-word cameo from actor Michael Shannon, who has appeared in every one of Nichols' brother's films. The song's title "Back to the Night" references a line from Nick Tosches' Jerry Lee Lewis biography, Hellfire. In addition, there's a song Nichols wrote for his brother's movie Loving, which appeared in the film and on the soundtrack, re-recorded for Among the Ghosts with the whole band.
Several songs juxtapose going off to battle with a rock & roll band's endless touring, shifting time periods like the spirits which haunt the album, the happiness of domestic bliss undercut with fears of loss and the specter of mortality. Among the Ghosts simultaneously reprises the past and looks to the future, while being firmly anchored in the present. Musically, the band highlights range from co-founding member Brian Venable's Dire Straits-meets-War on Drugs guitar pyrotechnics in "Bottom of the Sea" and "Cover Me" to the Springsteen vibe of "For the Lonely Ones," Rick Steff's skeletal piano lines on "Always Been You," John C'. Stubblefied's bass lines in "Everything Has Changed" and "Long Way Back Home," and drummer Roy Berry's dynamic shifts from the powerful and brutal title track "Among the Ghosts" to the marching drive of "To My Dearest Wife" and the subtlety of "Loving." Throughout, Nichols' bourbon-soaked growl has become even more distinctive and commanding.