The search for one’s identity is a lifelong process that every individual must go through. Who someone is today, is not the person they were yesterday nor who they may be tomorrow. Despite those changes, there is a general idea of a defined sense of self. No matter what happens, it is that small yet solid and grounding definition of self that continues to drive us forward in our search for identity and whatever may come with it.
It would be difficult to find any artist who understands that better than the band Lucero.
Since forming in Memphis in the late 90’s, Lucero’s base musical hallmarks have remained similar to the band’s initial sound established with their first record The Attic Tapes. In the history of their expansive discography, Lucero has evolved and embraced everything from southern rock to Stax-inspired Memphis soul, whilst simultaneously maintaining their distinctive sonic foundations. Over 20 years later, dedicated fans of the group still flock to hear the band’s punchy driving rhythms, punk-rooted guitar licks, and lyrics that evoke the whiskey drenched sentimentality of Americana singer-songwriters. As expected of any band built to survive, Lucero has welcomed change over the course of their career, but it has always been on their terms.
The band’s twelfth album, Should’ve Learned by Now, began its life as hardly more than some rough demos and lingering guitar parts. These pieces that were left behind from the band’s previous albums, Among the Ghosts (2018) and When You Found Me (2021) were deemed too uptempo and capering for the prior records’ darker themes.
“I had a particular sound I was looking for on each record and there was no room for any goofy rock & roll or cute witticisms or even simply upbeat songs,” said primary lyricist and frontman, Ben Nichols. “But now finally, it was time to revisit all of that stuff and get it out in the world. That’s how we got to the appropriately-for-us-titled album Should’ve Learned by Now. The album is basically about how we know we are fuckups and I guess we are ok with that.”
The band, comprised of all its original members (which in addition to Ben Nichols, includes Brian Venable on guitar, Roy Berry on drums, John C. Stubblefield on bass, and Rick Steff on keys) teamed up for a third time with producer and Grammy Award-winning engineer and mixer, Matt Ross-Spang. Lucero began the recording process in Sam Phillips Recording Service before transitioning and finishing the record in Ross-Spang’s newly opened Southern Grooves Productions in Memphis, TN. Ross-Spang appears to have settled in with the band’s more trademark sound whilst very much making his touch known to listeners.
“He knows how to take the sounds we’re making on our own and just kind of polish them up in the right way. Or dirty it up in the right way. Whatever it takes, he just kind of does it,” says Nichols.
The first track from the album “One Last F.U.” is a punchy and somewhat combative song which was one of the original remnants of Among the Ghosts. Despite its title, “One Last F.U.” is less about standoffishness and more a self-reflection on the kind of people we are capable of being in difficult situations. According to Nichols “The rest of the song was simply about wanting to be left alone while I drank at the bar. That could be taken in a kind of grumpy/antagonistic way, but I feel ok singing the song because I’ve been both characters in the song at different times. Sometimes I’m the one wanting to be left alone and sometimes I’m the drunk one blabbing all night to someone that just wants to be left alone.” Right off the bat, Nichols’ vocals are awash in rock and roll slap-back reverb. The effect pushes Nichols' naturally upfront vocals wider, so they fill the space in a manner more akin to a live performance. It’s one of a few new production effects that extend throughout the record and add a new level of presence and attitude to the band’s sound.
The second track, “Macon if We Make It”, was inspired by the band having to traverse through Georgia during a hurricane. When asked where the next stop on the tour was, the band responded with, “Macon, if we make it.” Continuing to be reminiscent of older works, “Macon if We Make It” has echoes of the band’s 2009 album 1372 Overton Park. The song is really driven by guitarist Brian Venable’s formidable electric guitar. The lyrics seem at first to be mostly preoccupied with a literal storm situation at hand but turn out to be more about a troubled relationship back home. The proverbial dam breaks when the narrator sings “I don’t know if we were in love. I just know it wasn’t enough. Got caught in the storm and the water it’s rising…” The song gives way to a powerful drum lead up by Roy Berry and the listener is carried out, like a raft, on a ripping guitar solo.
The pushes and pulls, builds and breakdowns are all over the album’s subsequent tracks, but it isn’t all hard-edged rock and roll all the time. “She Leads Me”, is inspired somewhat by the classic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, and delves into a softer and more nostalgic sound. With backing vocals supplied by Jesse Davis and Cory Branan, it’s a song that lyrically rests on the concept that we sometimes need to recognize and acknowledge our past for a gentle enough reassurance to move forward.
The rest of the album dives right back into its more rock and roll songs with “At the Show” and “Nothing’s Alright”, both of which examine the highs and lows of remembering old loves, reminiscing on the old days, and contented introspection. Aspects which finally come to a head in the album’s title track “Should’ve Learned by Now”, a rough and edgy song that tackles the fact that all the lessons, though clearly recognized, have yet to sink in. Quite poetically, the song is set to a tune that may be the greatest call back to Lucero’s punk upbringing.
From its original Ben Nichols-designed cover art to its credits, the album is a reflection of a band that knows itself. Should’ve Learned by Now bridges the gap musically between “old Lucero” and “new Lucero” in a manner which affixes the band’s position as the perfect intersection of punk initiative with hard-earned artistry. It’s an album that recognizes the past in its sound and content, but leaves the door wide open to the future and for the lessons still in store.