In 2012, Memphis, Tenn.'s country-punk septet Lucero released Women & Work. It sounded like a raw, gritty rock album with just the right helping of country twang and soulful swagger, tearing up some roadhouse honky-tonk on a Friday night. The guitars were barbed-wire sharp, the harmonies were tight but ragged, and the occasional horn blasts brought out an R&B flavor. It was spend-your-paycheck-at-the-bar music to be sure.
Earlier this year, Lucero released All a Man Should Do, and it sounds for all the world like the morning after that raucous party. The amps are turned down; the guitars are mostly acoustic. The lyrics from singer/guitarist Ben Nichols have turned inward. He's more reflective than any time in the band's 17-year history. "It wasn't long ago that I was counting my days/With anger, boredom, fear and pain/ Back then I just wanted to even the score/ The pain doesn't translate the same anymore," Nichols sings with torn-throat emotion on "The Man I Was."
"We've made jokes about it being the 'Ben-turns-40' album," says Lucero's lead guitarist, Brian Venable. "The older you get, the more reflective you get, I think."
As with Lucero's other nine studio albums, the direction and overall sound of All a Man Should Do sprung from a single song. "I think at some point while you're writing, you end up with that one song that you build the whole record around," Venable says. "And for this record that song was 'I Woke Up in New Orleans.' Once that got written, we were like, 'Wow, that's powerful, introspective stuff,' and that kind of colored the rest of the record."
That particular song is a ravaged, hungover self-examination of a man whose life is controlled by the bottle: "I woke up in New Orleans, angry at the world at all alone/ I want you to know darlin' that I love you and I want to come back home."
It's an incredibly mature effort, and the band's partnership with producer Ted Hutt was vital to the process of making it. It's Hutt's third consecutive release with the band, and Venable says they started working with him almost by chance. "I think when we started with (2009's) 1372 Overton Park. He was on a list of producers that our label at the time gave us," he says. "He'd worked with the Gaslight Anthem, and he just seemed to fit. He was more involved than any of the producers we'd had at that point. He was more like a coach. He came in like, 'Y'all don't write bridges. Let's work on writing some bridges.' Before we just came in and said, 'Here are the songs. Let's record them.'"
Lucero isn't always great at getting their musical ideas across to other people, so their rapport with Hutt has been essential to their evolution as a band. "We've developed a working relationship," Venable says. "I think as we've progressed, we know what to expect from each other, and it makes things a lot easier. Sometimes we have a hard time breaking in new people and learning to communicate with them, and with Ted we know how to exchange ideas. We have a dialogue. His whole thing is, 'If I say I don't want to do something, you can't just tell me that you do want to do it. You should be able to tell me why, and then we'll talk about it.'"
One of the most unexpected moments on the album is the band's cover of Big Star's "I'm in Love With a Girl," a blissfully melodic, vocal harmony-drenched track that features Big Star's Jody Stephens alongside Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies. Stephens' presence on the track came about because he runs Ardent Studios in Memphis, where the album was recorded. Venable says, "We got really lucky with the guys in the Posies being in town for a Chris Bell tribute show [Bell was a member of Big Star for their first two albums], and we got a chance to have them on the record."
Though the two bands might not sound similar, they have some common ground. "Big Star songs are about hanging out and chasing girls. We have songs about hanging out and chasing girls," Venable says. "And [Big Star singer/songwriter] Alex Chilton made two beautiful, orchestral-sounding Big Star records — but listen to the stuff he did after that. Big Star was just a blip on his stylistic radar. We're the same way. We can do any kind of music we want to, and it's still us."