Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real have been playing together for 11 years, but it was their guest appearance as Bradley Cooper’s band in the 2018 version of A Star Is Born – which Nelson also wrote and performed several songs for – that brought them to mainstream attention. Since then they’ve performed at Glastonbury (again) and released the album ‘Naked Garden’, a spin-off from their 2019 record ‘Turn Off The News (Build A Garden)’ which featured outtakes and early versions of songs. Now they’re back with the follow-up, ‘ A Few Stars Apart’.
The 11-track LP opens with We’ll Be Alright, a mellow acoustic guitar-led track that serves an an anthem for getting through the pandemic. The song’s hopeful, positive message and lilting melody give it a dreamlike feel, balanced by the building layers of instruments, but the standout aspect is Nelson’s lead vocal. He really shows off the depth and richness of his tone, and there’s a lovely sense of warmth about his delivery too, offset by some big notes towards the end of the song. At times he sounds uncannily like his dad too! It’s a surprisingly emotional way to kick off the record and one that sets the template for a very special set of songs.
Throughout the album the band shows off their musical range, switching from the funky, playful groove of No Reason to Leave ‘Em Behind with its late-era Beatles vibes, long, drawn-out notes from Nelson and a standout intricate, bluesy guitar riff that reflects the lyrics’ message of driving away to a better life. Elsewhere, lead single Perennial Bloom (Back To You) mixes wailing guitars with stomping drums – and possibly the first lyrical reference to pandemic mask-wearing – whilst the high-energy carefree Wildest Dreams captures the nostalgic feeling of looking back on a one-night stand you can’t quite forget.
However, for me the standout tracks are often those which focus on the piano and Nelson’s voice. Throwin’ Away Your Love is an early highlight, with its wordy, tricksy lyrics referencing psychology and crime (a theme that recurs throughout the album), and a stripped-back feel that highlights the soulfulness in Nelson’s voice as his measured delivery masks the song’s emotional core. Meanwhile, the romantic, timeless A Few Stars Apart – written the night one of Nelson’s close friends passed away and dedicated to her – echoes back to the sense of connection of We’ll Be Alright, creating a sense that this is a fully cohesive, thought-out body of work and reinforcing the links between the songs.
Towards the end of the album, three songs in a row come together to strengthen this message. The moving Giving You Away returns to the crime imagery seen earlier in the record, with Nelson hitting some big notes and capturing the song’s bittersweet sense of regret alongside the a capella ending. It’s followed by Hand Me A Light, which shows off some beautiful harmonies and tells of two lost souls coming together. ‘My heart will not listen but it wants to be heard’, Nelson sings, and you feel the yearning in him to be seen. Finally, More Than We Can Handle pairs a tinkling piano intro and shuffling rhythm with wry humour, flood imagery and an uplifting message of how a good relationship can carry you through the toughest times. Taken as a group, these feel like the real core of the album and work incredibly well both to link all the album’s themes together and send out some very strong hints about the direction the band is heading.
The record closes with Smile, a delicate piano-led track with a retro feel that sees Nelson looking ahead and experiencing the contentment of an easy relationship after taking on life’s lesson. The river imagery, calling back to We’ll Be Alright, is a lovely touch, and the song’s introspective quality provides a moment of reflection. Although the track also has some darker undertones, it ends the album on a positive note and leaves you with a sense that you’ve just experienced something rather magical.
Overall ‘A Few Stars Apart’ is Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real’s best album yet, setting out their stall as one of the standout country-rock bands of the time and excellent storytellers. They’ve delivered a record which shows off their talents as musicians and Nelson’s impressive vocal range, and that could have easily emerged from the 60s and 70s whilst also sounding fresh and modern. I’m excited to see where they go from here and hope that it won’t be too long before they’re back out on the road – these songs need to be heard live soon!
Track listing: 1. We’ll Be Alright 2. Perennial Bloom (Back To You) 3. Throwin’ Away Your Love 4. A Few Stars Apart 5. No Reason 6. Leave ‘Em Behind 7. Wildest Dreams 8. Giving You Away 9. Hand Me A Light 10. More Than We Can Handle 11. Smile Record label: Fantasy Records Release date: 11th June 2021