Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real
Sticks and Stones
Hippies at heart, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real always ran the risk of drifting a little too far out into space, particularly after spending time with their frequent frontman, Neil Young. Sticks and Stones finds the group firmly returning to earth, stripping away trippy affectations so they can concentrate on such earthy pleasures as blues boogies, barroom dances, campfire singalongs and liquor.
Nelson places alcohol squarely at the center of “Alcohallelujah” and “Every Time I Drink,” a pair of songs that appear early on the record, and they’re key to understanding where Promise of the Real is coming from this time around. They’re acting like a country band, but they’re not playing straight country; they’re singing loose, clever tunes about stumbling into the wrong house and climbing up the ladder of love at the speed of a locomotive — good-time numbers that find their counter with cheerful barroom songs like “More Than Friends” and “If I Didn’t Love You.” There isn’t an overriding theme on Sticks and Stones, nor is it nearly as ambitious as previous Promise of the Real records, yet that’s its charm: it’s lean, loose and funny, the kind of record that provides a soundtrack for any kind of good time.
Nelson announced last year that he’d given up booze to pursue a healthier lifestyle, but Sticks and Stones is, nevertheless, full of party songs. Now, those songs may not exactly be happy. They fit into the Saturday evening/Sunday morning country music tradition, where fun and regret are part of the experience. But the mood is always jovial. He may be drunk but not too drunk to copulate, although his wife is tired of boozy sex, and every time he takes to the bottle, he still thinks of his absent lover.
Despite the mixed messages of the words, the music on Sticks and Stones suggests life is good. There’s a buoyancy to the songs that roll more than rock and move from track to track like a train with a club car. In tracks like “Ladder of Love,” “Wrong House” and “Overpass,” the rhythm of the rails overtakes the lyrical concerns in importance. The instruments drive the songs.
“I run just to see my tail,” Nelson sings on “Icarus,” and he does seem to always be moving. But like his namesake, the protagonist doesn’t always know where he’s going. Sticks and Stones moves haphazardly from one song to the next. It’s like listening to a jukebox of classic country songs that sound familiar but are contemporary simultaneously. The cuts may vary in style. One can hear echoes from past masters (Hank Williams, Bob Wills), but Nelson and company add a joyful touch to the proceedings. Even on the one really sad song, the acoustic “Lying,” Nelson’s voice and guitar picking suggest the pleasure in self-pity. Desire in and of itself can be a good thing.
Nelson wrote every track on Sticks and Stones, which was co-produced by him and POTR. The lyrics seem to be the work’s weakest part. Although the words can be clever, the singer-songwriter seems to have nothing to say. Sometimes, this works to his advantage, as on “Alcohallejuah” when he conveniently leaves out the action verb and still maintains the f-sound with: “Caught a little luck / The door’s a little stuck / Maybe ’fore we leave the truck / We can have a real quick.”
The omission following “real quick” results in the funniest line on Sticks and Stones. As Nelson sings in the title song, words are … well, just words. He and the band are here to make the listener feel good. The implicit message is life may have its ups and downs. Others may try and hurt you. So it’s important to remember the good things. And if one can enjoy oneself, go for it. Party on!
A version of this review originally ran on popmatters.com.