Few would dispute how today’s relentless 24 hour news cycle can wear anyone down. Always connected, coming from all directions the babble never stops and it can be addictive. If any of that strikes a chord then Lukas Nelson has a suggestion; turn it off and take up gardening. And while you ponder that, or even as you plant the first seeds give his new album Turn Off The News (Build A Garden) a listen.
This is not whimsy just to make a good song. Nelson is making a valid point about the damage wrought by our fixation with devices and the constant gratification they demand. Just turn them off, take a step back and do something that connects you with your local community. At the same time he makes clear this is a fun and upbeat collection of songs. Sure, he’s got something to say but in a lighter optimistic way. He isn’t preaching Armageddon.
These are good songs but what stands out most notably is the way Nelson and his band Promise Of The Real draw on so many influences to skip lightly across genres creating their own sound. Having a famous parent doesn’t automatically ensure success but dad, Willie Nelson, couldn’t have prepared his son up better. Willie’s country is there but so are The Byrds, Tom Petty, Al Green, Neil Young, Little Feat and JJ Cale to name a few. POTR have been Neil Young’s backing band for the past five years, in a completely different direction working with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, Nelson co-wrote and produced much of the soundtrack for ‘A Star Is Born’. POTR are also road warriors, they play around 200 shows a year, including this year’s Glastonbury.
Nelson and POTR have distilled all these influences into their own sound that comes across perhaps with greater sparkle than their eponymous 2017 debut.
The opening drive of ‘Bad Case’ immediately prompts thoughts of The Travelling Wilburys, particularly Tom Petty. Both ‘fun’ and ‘upbeat’ get a firm tick. Given their hectic schedule Nelson and POTR didn’t have long to record the album so with an analogue tape, few overdubs they have recreated a live feel. This band is tuned to perfection.
The title track is not a rant, quite the opposite as Nelson believes there is good in all of us. Just sometimes a bit of redirecting is needed. “I believe that every heart is kind/ Some are just a little underused/ Hatred is a symptom of the times”. He isn’t seeking something out of reach either, just a happier life through spending time with real people, family and friends. “Trust builds trust/ All that negativity’s a bust/ Trust builds trust/ Don’t you wanna be happy?” The garden isn’t a metaphor either, Nelson is actively encouraging people to build community gardens, the map on his website shows impressive results.
If for any reason the listener has failed to get the message the title track is repeated acoustically as a bonus track. The meaning is even starker.
“Where Does Love Go” harks straight back to the Wilburys, as Nelson vocally and musically creates a soaring Orbison sound, complete with some backing vocals that go back even further to meet ‘Save A Little Heartache’ somewhere in 1960s.
Country hasn’t come up much so far but ‘Mystery’ is pure Willie Nelson. A background pedal steel adds atmosphere to vocals that effortlessly span the generations. The title track’s message returns in ‘Simple Life’, a laid back reminder that ruminating over things isn’t good, instead just, “Do a little less thinkin’, babe/ You don’t need to know the answers why”. Earlier in the song Nelson offers an accompaniment that may assist reaching this nirvana.
That cosmic feeling repeats in ‘Stars Made Of You’ a blend of country pop that gives the same dazzling effect as looking at the sun for too long. Perhaps reflecting where I first came across Nelson my favourite track is ‘Out In LA’. A song about long-distance love starts off in reflective mode before POTR turn it up and Nelson plays it every bit as good as the great man himself.
Combining the number and diversity of his various projects, Lukas Nelson is the man of the moment but he got there because of his own talents and hard work. Turn Off The News is a thoroughly complete album, a great summer driving accompaniment with a serious message.