Five seconds into Lucero’s fifth studio album, Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers, the piano makes its first appearance and everything sounds different. Ten seconds later, Ben Nichols opens his mouth, and it’s Lucero again. Saturated with piano, organ (provided by fellow-Memphian Rick Steff) and grandiose guitar work, the latest from this hard-touring quartet sounds a lot like Bruce Springsteen. Well, it sounds like the idea of Bruce Springsteen, master of the delicate juxtaposition of stasis and movement. (Only someone who felt trapped could have written “Born to Run.”)
It’s something Lucero, a band stalled on the brink for years, understand well. This record salutes the feeling you get from listening to grand, gritty, sprawling music like Springsteen—the delicate illusion of power and the fleeting euphoria of false hope it inspires. But where Rebels draws on many of the sonic elements of that marvelous, melancholy rock ’n’ roll, here they’re seen through Lucero’s raw, raucous Southern lens. And, most importantly, Nichols is not “The Boss”—he’s still the same sad, scared punk-rock kid, watching his girl go home with someone else, then burying his pain in booze and sad songs.
Rebels is also a fun record, in the way classic rock is fun. It’s loud, melodic and easy to sing along to, the perfect soundtrack to a night with a pretty girl and a cold six-pack. Over the past few years, Lucero have slowly abandoned their country-tinged, punk balladry (to the chagrin of some of their long-term fans), becoming one of the most underrated straight-up rock bands around, while still holding onto the vital elements—rugged, up-front guitar lines and Nichols’ boy-on-the-next-barstool charisma and underdog earnestness—that make them compelling. “San Francisco” is a Southern boy’s take on the Bay Area, the organ swelling in insistent bursts and Nichols singing his guts out. The chorus is punctuated by the never-gets-old invitation to “Come on, come on / Come on, come on.” “1979” layers crunchy guitars over pretty piano parts, each instrument singing its own mournful song.
The underlying narrative, though, is the journey: a night out, a club tour, an attempt at a rock ’n’ roll career. In each microcosmic adventure, exuberance and anticipation give way to broken promises, desolate bars or exquisite loneliness. On “I Can Get Us Out of Here Tonight,”—a poor man’s “Thunder Road”—Nichols sings in a sandpaper howl, “Don’t look back, don’t hesitate / Car’s outside and we can’t wait.” It’s a far cry from Springsteen’s brash, idealistic entreaty—Nichols is begging and wishing, and she’s not coming. Even if they do “get out,” the road seems destined to become its own fortress. Where the Boss had confidence, Nichols has desperation.
Elsewhere, songs on this record are filled with promises to Nichols’ ever-elusive best girl. On “The Mountain,” he swears, like all good Southern boys, to buy back the land his girl’s daddy lost on “horses, whiskey and wedding rings.” Not only will he buy back that mountain, but, “Uphill I’ll make the rivers climb / And you can swim with the stars in the fading light.” All this is laid over a roadhouse rhythm and a clever, guitar riff that guitarist Brian Venable toys with and extrapolates. Nichols sings that he’ll come back when he’s a success, but his throaty, over-eager delivery belies the truth—she’ll be waiting forever.
The rampaging, freight-train momentum this band have gathered by track 10 means the listener hits the brick wall they’ve set up—two devastating, unwinding ballads—real hard. “On the Way Back Home” deals with returning from the road, and it’s not a joyful homecoming. Over a vintage Lucero guitar line, Nichols explains, with weary resignation, “One of two choices / I guess I’ve made mine / I drink in a different town nearly every night.” This album, like all the Lucero records before it, is the child of that experience: never falling hard enough to quit, but still finding yourself, years later, in a van in the middle of nowhere thinking about the girl you left behind.
The album closes with the insanely sad “Sleeps When She Dreams.” Nichols’ voice, that gritty, impassioned growl that has been in your ear for 45 minutes, is pulled back a bit, as though he’s singing from across the room or into a tape recorder in a crappy hotel. He pleads, “Now sleep my sweet girl and dream of better days,” because he hasn’t done all the things he’s promised—she’s still there, waiting, sleeping fitfully. He whispers in her ear across the distances, over barely-breathed-on piano, organ and a simple winding guitar line.