It’s notable that Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real are credited as co-producers of Turn Off The News, Build A Garden, the group’s fifth studio effort. In teaming with John Alagia, the supervisor of their eponymous prior album, the group has restored some of the rambunctious personality that earmarked their earlier albums, a move that counteracts the somewhat antiseptic air that tainted that previous record. Cameos by the disparate likes of Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Margo Price and Kesha do nothing to distract or detract from the work of a fledgling band taking a sizable step forward in their evolution.
The title song doesn’t carry much less of a sing-song air than the opener “Bad Case”–an ever-so-accurate emulation of the dense production style of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass–but the layering of instruments does allow for a greater sense of interaction between a POTR lineup now condensed to five pieces. A similar sense of unified economy permeates the ultra-lush “Where Does Love Go,” featuring the dulcet vocal tones of Madison Ryan Ward and Scarlett Burke, while Tato Meldar’s percussion draws out the undercurrent of reggae in the rhythm at the core of “Save A Little Heartache.” There too, the lap steel Jesse Siebenberg plays injects a loopy air reminiscent of early Promise Of The Real into what otherwise might morph into generic nouveau C&W.
As a matter of fact, in “Civilized Hell,” there’s more than a scant trace of the cracked sensibilities that informed early originals of Lukas Nelson’s like the ones on Wasted. The quirks are sufficiently camouflaged on that track, in part by the singing of Lucius, but also by the bandleader’s electric guitar solo: fans of contemporary country might well mistake this music for their preferred style. But the slightly-skewed perceptions authored by Willie Nelson’s older son for “Mystery” and “Simple Life” are similarly eccentric, a characteristic reinforced by his younger sibling Micah’s knotty guitar.
Turn Off The News, Build A Garden also radiates a much greater sense of spontaneity than its predecessor. “Out In LA,” for instance, at first sounds like a straightforward exhibition of smooth harmony singing, but the performance turns into a tough jam at the end. And that track leads directly into “Something Real:” reappearing from the second POTR album after which it’s titled, this is fiery stuff, suggesting more such tough-minded playing would add further ballast to this record (besides positioning the notion a live album should be Lukas & company’s next release).
The soaring romanticism of “Stars Made of You” reminds Lukas Nelson wrote songs with Lady Gaga while he worked on the music for A Star Is Born. But the instrumental breakdown in the arrangement, combined with the frontman’s reedy voice echoing at the close, renders the track at least partially tongue-in-cheek. That’s hardly the case with the acoustic version of the title song that follows though, which sounds alternately soporific and blunt to a fault. But, like so many of these baker’s dozen cuts, it’s dangerous to take it wholly at face value. Likewise the closing, “Consider It Heaven,” where comfort gives way to foreboding, in the same way, Logan Metz’ piano balances off Nelson’s acoustic guitar: it is a wholly fitting finale to an album that places the idiosyncrasies of this band in such a palatable setting, listeners old and new may be rendered captive almost without their knowledge or consent.