Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real look inward and cherish simplicity and community on their new release.
Not many young singer-songwriters can say that they were the inspiration behind the character in a film, whether or not they are from a famous dynastic musical family. Both of these situations apply to Lukas Nelson, who inspired fellow heartthrob Bradley Cooper’s character in the most recent adaptation of “A Star is Born” (2018) and happens to be the son of Willie Nelson. Nelson spent the pandemic with his parents and brother Micah in Texas and embarked on a DIY personal spiritual retreat while there. The result is his new album with his band Promise of the Real, “A Few Stars Apart.” Rather than go to India and meditate at an ashram, Nelson sought enlightenment and revelation in the Austin foothills.
As Nelson himself admits, much of his life has been spent on the road, not spending more than three months in the same place. On “A Few Stars Apart” there is tension between restlessness and stability, endless travelling and comfortable domesticity, and youthful hijinks and maturity. There is a common trope in country and folk music (and elsewhere) about a woman wanting to disrupt a travelling man’s freedom, but there’s none of that here. Family, long–term relationships, and deep friendships are central to songs like “A Few Stars Apart,” “Perennial Bloom (Back to You),” “More Than We Can Handle,” “Smile,” and the country waltz “We’ll Be Alright.” While Nelson can sound eerily like his father during quieter moments, there are also passing similarities to Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, and Bill Withers.
Promise of the Real really shine as a band on this record, with no guest appearances from famous friends. I disagree with the assessment that this sounds like a Lukas Nelson solo album. The musicians in Promise of the Real, who have toured with Neil Young for more than half a decade, are extremely accomplished and close-knit in their playing. Anthony LoGerfo and Corey McCormick are a brilliant rhythm section. Logan Metz adds perfectly placed piano and organ lines throughout the album but remarkably so on the title track.
Roots rock banger “Wildest Dreams” has a beautiful Tom Petty-like burnish, a fond look back at a memorable one-night stand. The earlier single “Leave ‘Em Behind,” about supporting a woman leaving an abusive relationship, has a Beatles-like circular lyric and a trippy bridge, promising freedom and better days. Nelson quietly preaches fatalistic faith on “More than You Can Handle” (“We’ve got a lot of good friends in the highlands / We’ll be okay, we’ll find a way to survive…She said, ‘God won’t give us more than we can handle’… At least we’ve got each other if I’m wrong”), delving into the real meaning behind the often-repeated evangelical motivational phrase, based on a quote from St. Paul.
Nelson and his band have all changed somewhat since “Naked Garden” (2020) and “Turn Off the News (Build a Garden)” (2019), both solid albums that lack the ruminative introspection of this one. “A Few Stars Apart” is full of ‘70s southern rock, classic rock by way of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. It is a milestone of personal development, a timely reminder of the simple pleasures of human companionship and a bit of stargazing.