A well-crafted, Southern-tinged stab at folk-pop, Ben Nichols’s The Last Pale Light In the West is a brief, melancholic concept album inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s famed novel Blood Meridian. Without fully committing to the constraints of an actual linear narrative, Nichols’s album takes a deeply desolate aesthetic and stretches it to the point of contextual relevance with little to no emotive bludgeoning. As the frontman and voice for Southern-rock/country-punk scenesters Lucero (who are currently putting the final touches on their major-label debut, and their first album since 2006’s Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers), Nichols has spent the better part of a decade regaling us with bar ballads of lost opportunities and nagging inhibitions in the key of Born to Run, but his usually whiskey-soaked vocal delivery is slightly reined in here, allowing for a more empathetic storyteller scowl.
While it has the potential to become far too familiar far too quickly, and though it’s perhaps too slight (it’s a mere seven tracks and clocks in at just over 27 minutes), Last Pale Light is still a largely impressive showing of conception and execution, seamlessly employing an adept mixture of Nichols’s trademark lucidity and misanthropic charm, and what emerges is a decidedly stark slice of Americana.
Whether it’s an atmospheric malaise added by an accordion on tracks like “Davy Brown” and “The Judge,” or the steel guitar providing an authenticity to the old-school western proclamations on the album’s title track, the music is astonishingly bereft of gimmickry and feels completely genuine. Its subtle sonic qualities elevate the grander themes of Nichols’s tall tales and make for a truly compelling listen.
The album’s brevity ultimately leaves one wanting much more, which is both a good and bad thing). As it stands, Last Pale Light is more a small collection of tracks that range from fairly good to excellent than a great album as a whole, but however imperfect, it’s an uncommonly strong feat of folk storytelling.