Credit: Lucero
by Luke Gorham Music Rooted & Restless

Lucero | When You Found Me

February 19, 2021

When You Found Me is an emotionally mature, classic rock riff on Lucero’s singular sound.

Lucero has always found themselves at intersections; sonically, the southern rockers have incorporated, and reconstituted, elements of alt-country, punk rock, cinematic soul, and bluesy folk, which their albums reflect. A typical Lucero set peppers in a few slowed-down, stripped-bare ballad-esque tracks amidst more generally rollicking rock fare, with lead singer/songwriter Ben Nichols’s lyricism embracing a similar duality in its move between intimate confessional and more rootsy, fabulist cuts. Nichols vacillates between poetic abstraction and narrative specificity — and while he rarely trades in outright dereliction or grotesquerie, his regular emphasis on the religious, the supernatural, and on humanity’s other soft miseries lends Lucero’s work an inflection that’s distinctly Southern Gothic. Given all that, it really shouldn’t surprise longtime listeners that the band’s eleventh record, When You Found Me, represents another new development: a right turn into classic rock territory. After all, these dudes are nothing if not born rockers.

Lucero’s major label detour, 2009’s 1372 Overton Park, saw the band open up their sound, adding a horn section, tightening song structures, and generally tilting toward more anthemic (country) rock. The decade since that album has seen the band both scale-up their sound (adding keyboards, pedal steel, occasional choral contributions) and refine the deployment of its new sonic accoutrements. Admittedly, it’s been a minute since the days of mandolin-plucking and upright bass, but after a whole mess of modulation across other recent efforts, Lucero have come up with the most calibrated, assuredly conceived waypoint for the past 10 years of their music. Fan-familiar elements remain: “Coffin Nails” is another haunted track written from the perspective of Nichols’s WWII-serving grandfather, while “Back in Ohio” is a jaunty rock diddy, an immediate earworm on the strength of its jammy piano smashing and raucous progression. But there are new eccentricities, too, ones that revitalize the band’s familiar sound and style. “A City on Fire” finds Nichols’s distinctive growl subsumed in a fuzzed-out melody of proto-metal droning, while much of the bridge and chorus boast a heartland rock sheen that playfully reminds of turn-of-the-‘90s John Cougar radio play.

This all makes for a vision that can feel admittedly ajumble at times, and while it is tempting to take some flourishes as mere musical cosplay on the band’s part, When You Found Me is still always committed to being a true Lucero record. More than ten albums deep into their career, this band has established a unique cadence — in instrumentation, lyricism, mood — and that very palpable identity undergirds even their grandest experimentation on this set. It’s an evolution that feels profoundly organic: if these guys no longer rep DIY troubadours touring the country in a van, as Lucero did through much of the 2000s, their maturity serves to deepen the material. Nichols was married in 2016, and as Lucero’s chief creative force, his blooming inevitably found its way into the band’s character. Among the Ghosts, the group’s last album and first recorded after Nichols’s marriage, was almost minimalist (by Lucero standards), a delicate reflection of the songwriter’s profound shift in circumstances. But it would take this album, arriving nearly five years later, for the expression of that milestone to reach full spiritual force. On When You Found Me’s title track — also its closer and emotional punctuation mark — Nichols writes a love letter to his wife, in the process reconciling much of the doubt and uncertainty that permeates this album, as well as reframing the travails and agonies that he’s regaled listeners with across two decades of songs. And so, when Nichols transforms his trademark hoarse drawl into a vulnerable, nasally almost-tenor, singing, “It’s alright, baby / I’m alright, darling / You got to me in time,it feels more like a beginning than an end.

Published as part of Album Roundup — January 2021 | Part 2.