A Few Stars Apart

Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real

Fantasy Records, 2021


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


The challenge is the same every time, for every artist: how do you follow an album that felt like a breakthrough? Do you try to pump a little more from that same well, or do you start digging a fresh one? After years of playing out and collaborations with the likes of Neil Young and Bradley Cooper (for his remake of A Star Is Born), 2019’s Turn Off The News (Build A Garden) felt like the moment when Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real finally arrived.

Their music had always been a sunny sort of hybrid, fusing loose-limbed jam-band tendencies with lilting country-rock roots and mixing in elements of r&b and gospel to form what Nelson has playfully termed “cowboy hippie surf rock.” On News, this jambalaya of sounds felt like it all came together into a somewhat cohesive whole while also giving a nod to Nelson’s heritage as the son of country icon Willie Nelson. A Few Stars Apart finds the group changing things up mostly by slowing things down; where News had a good balance of fast and slow numbers, its successor tips the scales in the direction of softer, quieter fare, with less immediately satisfying results. It’s an album with just as much heart as its predecessor, but fewer hooks.

You know you’re in a different space right away when the boys open up with the solid but, for an opener, surprisingly mellow ballad. “We’ll Be Alright” is a solid, deliberate number with sweep to it as it builds and a reassuring message, and when that familiar Nelson quaver creeps into Lukas’s voice it all feels very homey and friendly; it’s just unusual to open an album with such a slumbery tune.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Next up, the appealing “Perennial Bloom (Back To You)” offers a bigger, bolder rock vibe and a sturdy hook—and that’s when the light bulb came on. On ballads there’s just no escaping the similarities between Lukas and Willie’s voices; father and son are like peas in a pod when the track calls for a gentle croon. By contrast, on the rockier tracks Lukas just sounds like himself, a strong, appealing tenor that cuts right through the mix. And this is a good ’un, full of hooks and punchy dynamics.

In its own way, that unusual one-two sequence foreshadows the rest of the album; this album has its moments, but they’re scattered across a somewhat spotty tracklist. The title cut is certainly a highlight, a gorgeous ballad about trying to keep the flame lit on a long-distance relationship that Nelson sings like he means every syllable. A bit later the country-rock flavored “Leave ’Em Behind” offers perceptive advice to a friend about getting out of a bad situation (“If you really love yourself, you’ve got to leave him behind”) while delivering a bridge-and-solo section that’s downright elegant.

The one other rocker here, “Wildest Dream,” is another highlight, a sonic cousin to Traveling Wilburys with its propulsive jangle supported by supple acoustic rhythm guitars, spiced with Nelson’s distinctive twang. Finally, album closer “Smile” is a stunner of a ballad, and another where I hear more Lukas than Willie in Nelson’s vocals.

In between and all around, though, the pickings are sparser. There’s a passel of mid-tempo numbers that blur together, other than the gospel-tinged Hammond organ on “Throwin’ Away Your Love” and the sheer playfulness of acoustic rambler “More Than We Can Handle,” which gently mocks a series of clichés about enduring adversity. The remaining ballads are similarly indistinct, other than guest Rina Ford’s co-lead vocals on the romantic weeper “Hand Me A Light.”

What I take from all this is another cliché: it’s not you, it’s me. Lukas Nelson wrote an album that’s dominated by ballads and deliberate mid-tempo numbers. A couple of them are really good, and he sings them all well. It’s just that my tastes run to his punchier, more rock-oriented material, and that is in short supply this time around. Still, I’ll be back, because with A Few Stars Apart, Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real live up to the commitment made in their name: they deliver music full of promise and always keep it real. Maybe next time they’ll do it with a little more fire.

Rating: B

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